Text: Albert Kostenevich
Baseline Co Ltd
127-129A Nguyen Hue
Fiditourist, 3rd floor
District 1 , Ho Chi Minh-City
© Parkstone Press International, New York, 2005
© Confidential Concepts, worldwide, USA, 2005
© Estate Bonnard / Artists Rights Society, New York, USA / AD AGP, Paris
© Estate Vuillard / Artists Rights Society, New York, USA / AD AGP, Paris
© Estate Roussel / Artists Rights Society, New York, USA / AD AGP, Paris
© Estate Denis / Artists Rights Society, New York, USA / AD AGP, Paris
© Estate Picasso / Artists Rights Society, New York, USA / Picasso
© Estate Matisse / Artists Rights Society, New York, USA / Les Heritiers
All rights reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of
the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyrights
on the works reproduced lie with the respective photographers. Despite intensive
research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright ownership. Where
this is the case we would appreciate notification.
and the Nabis
Ker Xavier Roussel
I n October 1947, the Musee de l’Orangerie arranged a large
posthumous exhibition of Bonnard’s work. Towards the close of the
year, an article devoted to this exhibition appeared on the first page
of the latest issue of the authoritative periodical Cahiers d'Art. The
publisher, Christian Zervos, gave his short article the title “Pierre
Bonnard, est-il un grand peintre?” (Is Pierre Bonnard a Great Artist?) In
the opening paragraph Zervos remarked on the scope of the exhibition,
since previously Bonnard’s work could be judged only from a small
number of minor exhibitions. But, he went on, the exhibition had
disappointed him: the achievements of this artist were not sufficient for
a whole exhibition to be devoted to his work. “Let us not forget that the
early years of Bonnard’s career were lit by the wonderful light of
Impressionism. In some respects he was the last bearer of that aesthetic.
But he was a weak bearer, devoid of great talent. That is hardly
surprising. Weak-willed, and insufficiently original, he was unable to
give a new impulse to Impressionism, to place a foundation of
craftsmanship under its elements, or even to give Impressionism a new
twist. Though he was convinced that in art one should not be guided by
mere sensations like the Impressionists, he was unable to infuse spiritual
values into painting. He knew that the aims of art were no longer those
of recreating reality, but he found no strength to create it, as did other
artists of his time who were lucky enough to rebel against Impressionism
at once. In Bonnard’s works Impressionism becomes insipid and falls
into decline.” 1 It is unlikely that Zervos was guided by any personal
animus. He merely acted as the mouthpiece of the avant-garde, with its
logic asserting that all the history of modern art consisted of radical
movements which succeeded one another, each creating new worlds less
and less related to reality. The history of modern art seen as a chronicle
of avant-garde movements left little space for Bonnard and other artists
of his kind. Bonnard himself never strove to attract attention and kept
away altogether from the raging battles of his time. Besides, he usually
did not stay in Paris for any length of time and rarely exhibited his work.
Of course, not all avant-garde artists shared Zervos’s opinions. Picasso,
for example, rated Bonnard’s art highly in contrast to his own admirer
Zervos, who had published a complete catalogue of his paintings and
drawings. When Matisse set eyes on that issue of Cahiers d’Art, he flew
into a rage and wrote in the margin in a bold hand: “Yes! I maintain that
Bonnard is a great artist for our time and, naturally, for posterity. Henri
Matisse, Jan. 1948.” 2 Matisse was right. By the middle of the century
Bonnard’s art was already attracting young artists far more than was the
case in, say, the 1920s or in the 1930s. Fame had dealt strangely with
Bonnard. He managed to establish his reputation immediately. He never
experienced poverty or rejection unlike the leading figures of new
est-il un grand peintre
Juaqu’ici il etait difficile de fornuitayAm point du
vue sur les peinturcsde Bonnard. eonnue* sculcmcnt
par des expositions d'import.incc limitic. 1. 'im-
pression qu'on cn rccevait uhaque fois ctait trop frag
mentairt* pour qu'on cn vint a a border ces peint tires
de plain-pied et cn connaitrc les elevations et les
La riccntc exposition de I'ensemble dcs recher-
che* dc Bonnard, organist par le Musee de 1'Oran-
gcric, fait sortir son teuvre dcs raccourcis qui flatten!
davantage et n'en laisac plus ricn ignorer.
Je dirai en conscience que cettr exposition m’a
liien desappointc. Elle ne repondait pas a I'attcnte
que donnait la renomttiee de Partistc. Je l'avoue,
il m'cat impossible de passer par ccttc admiration
et de consentir ft celui-ri nc fut-ce qu’une petite
pan dc lu reverence qu'il inspire.
Peut-elre suis-je portc a lui trop refuser. Cc ne
serait pus, sans doutc, se montrer juste enverx ltd
que d’ouhlier quelques Iteiireux mouvenients dans
sex tableaux, muis cc Mint dcs mmivements si
aecondairca qu'ils uutoriRcnt la querclle que nous
lui faisons. Je pensc aussi, quYn naant dc severite
covers un Ituinme qui n'a pas su marquer lui temps
dccisif de refm me artistique, on arrivernit a modifier
ccrtuincs opinions susceptihlcs de jeter I'art dans
dcs chemins dc traverse.
Qui voudruit d'aillcnrs suivre Bonnard en martin-
et cn effort sur lui-mcmc, preciser les points ct les
temps esscnticls dc son reuvre, etablir le bilan de sa
contribution it I’art contemporain et de w qu’ellc a
vainement essayc d’y imrodulrc, revenir longucment
sur les litres dc ses peinturca selon les apcrr,-us tl’un
urdre eleve et sans fiechir sur les donnecs capitalcs
de Lcsthctique accucllc, qui a remis cn jeu mutes les
questions d’ari et ne con^oil aucune limits a son
essor ; celui-la serait fortement surpris de la vrande
fortune dont eetle ivtivrc jjotiil depuis qi^l*
A plus forte /aisnn sc sentirai^troublc et
astreint it <51cvcr sun veto contre les peinturcs dc
Bonnard, eclui qui a pour mission d’accucillir Ics
ucuvrcs d'art, d'apprecier les instincts qui s'v
excrccnt et d'en evalucr la profondcur et l'etenduc. .
II n’y u rien dc plus dccisif pour cclaircir le genre U
ct le degre d'ohjection que je lui fids, que d'indiqucij / ,
sa place entre l'imprcssinnnisme sur sa fin ct larC/
nouvcllc generation, parvettuc depuis a un prodi-
gieux triomphe, ct de rendre clairc sa position dans ^
I'cntrc-deux dc ces tendances.
Bonnard, nc 1'ouhlinns pas, a v6cu ses premieres
armies de travail sous le beau rayon dc Limprcs-
sionnisme. II fut en quelque sorte le dernier orgnne
assimilatcur de eetle estMtiqnc. Mais ce fut un
organe si faible qu'il n’en a jamais rccueilli la vcinc
Pent on s'en 6tonncr ? Depourvu de nerf et faihlc- (
ment original, il ctait impuissant il donner de Lessor j j f -
a Limprcsxionnisine, un tiansfuser Ic sang dans line j/ 1 “* y -
longue neuve, renicttre sea elements sur le metic$r
ou, ii la rigucur, les tnurncr a ncuf. Bien qu'il soit / j
doit plus considirer la pcinture /
b.. i ! Llon ill rcp.i y/j
/eut pid lairc intervemr /
utU'ertaiQTqu'il lies'agit plus
♦ Bonnard around 1890. Photo taken by Alfred Natanson.
♦ Article by Christian Zervos, Cahiers d’Art, 1947. Annotated by Matisse, January 1948. Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Croquet Game, 1892. Oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
painting who were recognized only late in life or posthumously — the
usual fate of avant-garde artists in the first half of the twentieth century.
The common concept of peintre mandit (the accursed artist), a Bohemian
pauper who is not recognized and who readily breaks established
standards, does not apply to Bonnard. His paintings sold well. Quite
early in his career he found admirers, both artists and collectors.
However, they were not numerous. General recognition, much as he
deserved it, did not come to him for a considerable time. Why was it that
throughout his long life Bonnard failed to attract the public sufficiently?
Reasons may be found in his nature and his way of life. Bonnard rarely
appeared in public, even avoiding exhibitions. For example, when the
Salon d’Automne expressed a desire in 1946 to arrange a large
retrospective exhibition of his work, Bonnard responded to this idea in
the following way: “A retrospective exhibition? Am I dead then?”
Another reason lay in Bonnard’s art itself: not given to striking effects, it
did not evoke an immediate response in the viewer. The subtleties of his
work called for an enlightened audience. There is one further reason for
the public’s cool attitude towards Bonnard. His life was very ordinary;
there was nothing in it to attract general interest. In this respect, it could
not be compared with the life of Van Gogh, Gauguin or Toulouse-
Lautrec. Bonnard’s life was not the stuff legends are made of. And a nice
legend is what is needed by the public, which easily creates idols of those
to whom it was indifferent or even hostile only the day before. But time
does its work. The attitude towards Bonnard’s art has changed noticeably
in recent years. The large personal exhibitions which took place in 1984-
85 in Paris, Washington, Zurich and Frankfurt-am-Main had
considerable success and became important cultural events. What was
Pierre Bonnard’s life like? He spent his early youth at Fontenay-aux-
Roses near Paris. His father was a department head at the War Ministry,
and the family hoped that Pierre would follow in his father’s footsteps.
His first impulse, born of his background, led him to the Law School, but
it very soon began to wane. He started visiting the Academie Julian and
later the Ecole des Beaux-Arts more often than the Law School. The
cherished dream of every student of the Ecole was the Prix de Rome.
Bonnard studied at the Ecole for about a year and left it when he failed
to win the coveted prize. His Triumph of Mordecai, a picture on a set sub-
ject which he submitted for the competition, was not considered to be
serious enough. Bonnard’s career as an artist began in the summer of
1888 with small landscapes painted in a manner which had little in
common with the precepts of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. They were
executed at Grand-Lemps in the Dauphine. Bonnard’s friends —
Serusier, Denis, Roussel and Vuillard — thought highly of these works.
Made in the environs of Grand-Lemps, the studies were simple and fresh
in colour and betrayed a poetic view of nature reminiscent of Corot’s.
Dissatisfied with the teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and at the
Academie Julian, Bonnard and Vuillard continued their education
independently. They zealously visited museums. During the first ten years
of their friendship, hardly a day went by when they did not see each other.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Andree Bonnard with her Dogs, 1890. Oil on canvas,
180 x 80 cm, Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, France-Champagne, 1891. Lithograph in 3 colours, 78 x 50 cm, Musee de Reims.
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♦ Pierre Bonnard, La Revue Blanche, 1894. Lithograph in 4 colours, 80 x 62 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The Nabis group, assembled by Paul Serusier, was comprised of
several members from the Academie Julian. In refusing to comply with
the rules of Impressionism, these artists claimed instead to be largely
influenced by Gaugin. Their name, derived from the Hebrew Nahbi,
signifies a prophet or a visionary, thus symbolizing their will to discover
the sacred nature of writing. They were largely influenced by Japanese
art, most notably wood engravings, as well as popular and primitive art
and the art of the symbolic artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Although
they all differed considerably from one another, there were two lines of
thought in particular on which they all agreed; firstly, subjective
misinterpretation, born within the artist’s emotions accentuating certain
aspects of the subject that is being depicted, and secondly, objective
misinterpretation ensuring the depiction finds its place in the
fundamental order of the work. Their art is characterized by an absence
of perspective and the use of pure tones and shades. They would all
attempt to overcome the barrier between easel painting and decorative
art, experimenting with illustration, wallpaper, stained-glass windows,
tapestry, furnishings... The Nabis group united artists such as Pierre
Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Felix Ker Xavier Roussel, Georges
Lacombe, the sculptor Aristide Maillol and even Maurice Denis who
claimed that, “before a painting is turned into a battle horse, a naked
woman, or becomes any sort of trivial detail, it is essentially just a flat
surface covered with colors that are assembled in a certain order.”And
yet they addressed one another with the formal “vous”, while Bonnard
addressed other members of the Nabi group with “tu”.
In the 1 890s Bonnard was by no means a recluse. He loved to go for
long walks with Roussel, even listened with pleasure to Denis’s lengthy
tirades, although he remained rather taciturn himself. He was sociable in
the best sense of the word. One of his humorous reminiscent drawings
(1910) shows the Place Clichy, the centre of the quarter where young
artists, light-hearted and somewhat Bohemian, usually congregated.
Bonnard, Vuillard and Roussel are unhurriedly crossing the square. Some
distance away, Denis is bustling along with a folder under his arm.
Towards them, from the opposite direction, comes Toulouse-Lautrec,
swinging a thick walking-stick. Toulouse-Lautrec was well disposed
towards Bonnard and Vuillard. From time to time he would take their
paintings, hire a carriage and drive to the art-dealers whom he knew
personally. It was not easy to get them interested, though. Toulouse-
Lautrec greatly admired Bonnard’s poster France-Champagne published
in 1891. Bonnard took the artist to his printer, Ancours, in whose shop
Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge was printed later the same year
followed by his other famous posters. The poster France-Champagne ,
commissioned by the wine-dealer Debray in 1889 was to play a special
role in Bonnard’s life. This work brought him his first emoluments. The
sum was miserably small compared with the earnings of the then much
feted artist Jean Meissonnier, but it convinced Bonnard that painting
could provide him with a living. This small success coincided with failure
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Portrait of Berthe Schaedlin, 1892. Oil on cardboard, 31 x 16.5 cm, Galerie Daniel Malingue, Paris.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Self-Portrait , 1889. Tempera on cardboard, 21.5 x 15.8 cm, Private Collection.
in his university examinations. Perhaps he was deliberately burning his
boats, abandoning a career in business for the sake of art. On 9 March
1891 he wrote to his mother: “I won’t be able to see my poster on the
walls just yet. It will only appear at the end of the month. But as I finger
the hundred francs in my pocket, I must admit I feel proud”. 3
At about the same time he sent five pictures to the Salon des
Independants. At the close of 1 891 he exhibited his works together with
Toulouse-Lautrec, Bernard, Anquetin and Denis at Le Bare de
Boutteville’s. When a journalist from Echo de Paris, who interviewed
the artists at the exhibition, asked Bonnard to name his favourite
painters, he declined to do so. He said that he did not belong to any
school. His idea was to bring off something of his own and he was
trying to forget all that he had been taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
One more event in 1891 played an important role in Bonnard’s life.
The journal Revue Blanche moved its editorial office from Brussels to
Paris. Bonnard and other members of the Nabi group soon established a
good relationship with the publisher Thadee Natanson, another former
student of the Lycee Condorcet. Natanson managed to get the most
gifted artists, writers and musicians to work for him. The frontispieces
of the journal were designed by Bonnard and Vuillard; inside there were
the latest poems of Mallarme, works by Marcel Proust and Strindberg,
Oscar Wilde and Maxim Gorky; Debussy also contributed. On the pages
of the Revue Blanche literary critics discussed the works of Leo Tolstoy.
Natanson himself devoted his first article to Utamaro and Hiroshige.
Without exaggeration, the Revue Blanche was the best French cultural
periodical of the 1890s. The atmosphere in its editorial office, which the
Nabis often visited, was stimulating. Natanson’s personal support for
the artists was also of no small importance. He was as young as the
artists whom he backed and was not afraid to follow his own
inclinations. Even Natanson’s friends later admitted that at times they
had doubts whether they could trust a person who decorated his home
with works by Bonnard and Vuillard.
Natanson’s printed reminiscences of Bonnard give perhaps one of
the best pen-portraits of the artist. “Bonnard, when 1 first met him, was
a gaunt young man who sometimes stooped. He had very white slightly
protruding front teeth, was timid and short-sighted. His dark brown
rather thin side-whiskers curled slightly; perched on his nose, very close
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Life of the painter, Pages from a drawing book. Pencil and fountain pen wash, around 1910. Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Bridge, 1896-1897. Lithograph in 4 colours, 27 x 41 cm.
to his eyes with the dark pupils, was a small pince-nez in an iron frame,
as was the fashion at the close of the nineteenth century. He spoke little,
but was always ready to show the portrait of his fat grandmother in
whose house he lived when he first came to Paris. The portrait had been
painted in the Dauphine and depicted the old lady with several white
hens pecking at some feed close to her skirts. My new friend behaved
in a very guarded manner when it came to discussing theories in
painting, but he readily spoke about Japanese prints of which he was
very fond. At that time such a taste could be easily satisfied. He also
preferred checked fabrics far more than any other kind. His smile, with
his white teeth showing slightly, was so winning that you wanted to see
it again and to hold on to it. You wanted to catch the moment when it
appeared. Bonnard smiled out of politeness, because of his shyness, but
once he had tamed his smile, so to speak, he was no longer inhibited,
and it was as if a tensioned spring had unwound... Bonnard hardly
changed from the early days of our friendship. He rarely livened up,
even more rarely expressed his mind openly, avoiding any possible
chance of letting his feelings come out into the open.” 4
“He was the humorist among us,” Lugne-Poe recalled. “His light-
hearted jollity and wit can be seen in his canvases”. 5 “Wonderfully
gifted, but too intelligent to let us feel his superiority, he was able to
hide the spark of genius within him,” 6 was Verkade’s recollection of
him. Bonnard’s humour was perhaps not always taken as harmless. The
Russian artist Alexander Benois said that his acquaintance with the
painter in the late 1 890s was short-lived because Bonnard’s specifically
French esprit gouaillear (mocking wit) made him feel ill at ease. 7 But
Benois’s reaction is exceptional. There was nothing of the born joker
about Bonnard, and as he grew older he became increasingly reserved,
even somewhat distrustful of others. In fact, throughout his life, even
when he was a member of the Nabi group, he required the company of
others less than his own; or rather what he needed was to be left alone
with his art. Natanson was right when he said that Bonnard’s
misanthropy sprang from his innate kindness. 8 But even in his youth
Bonnard was probably a more complex personality than he seemed to
his friends. His reserve and reticence hid traits which one could hardly
suspect. In his self-portrait painted in 1889 (Private Collection, Paris)
we see not a light-minded wit, but a watchful, diffident young man. The
still eyes hide thoughts one does not usually share with others. His
acquaintances saw him as a fine, jolly fellow. And that was true enough.
But was that all? With age, other hidden features of his nature became
more evident. At thirty, when Benois met him, he was a different man
from the one he was at the age of twenty: he was less light-hearted and
showed less desire to surprise with paradoxes. So many of his early
compositions were deliberately paradoxical.
In 1891 Bonnard told a correspondent from the Echo de Paris that
painting should be predominantly decorative, that the disposition of lines
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Little Laundry Girl, 1896. Lithograph in 5 colours, 30 x 19 cm, Paris, National Library.
revealed true talent. Three or four years later he began to move away
from intricate decorative effects and deliberate complexity towards a
greater liberation of colour and a living texture in painting, as well as
towards its inner integrity. This was a turning point in his career, but it
did not occur suddenly. Changes in Bonnard’s painterly manner
accumulated gradually, and for this reason it is impossible to draw a
dividing line between one period and another. But changes did take
place. When looking at a picture executed in the new manner, one cannot
help feeling that it is not so much a different picture as the earlier one
transformed, but that the newer picture represents a deeper
understanding of what the artist was doing before. While developing his
talent, Bonnard at the same time remained true to himself. Bonnard’s
invariable loyalty to himself and to his views on life is always expressed
in his art. Throughout the sixty years of his career he remained true to the
subjects of his youth, but none of his works is mere dreary repetition. His
artistic individuality is easily recognizable in each new work.
Bonnard’s intonations often have humorous overtones. Benois saw
this as the source of the superficiality for which he reproached the
artist.’ There might have been an element of truth in this, if Bonnard’s
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Children’s Lunch, c. 1906. Oil on wood 27 x 33,5 cm, Nancy, Musee des Beaux-Arts.
humour were present in all circumstances. But he used humour only
when he wanted to avoid the direct expression of emotions. In a way,
his special form of tact was akin to that of Chekhov. Though there was
never any personal contact between these two men, they had much in
common. Bonnard always added a touch of humour when he depicted
children. The ploy reliably protected him against the excessive
sentimentality often observed in this genre.
Bonnard had no children of his own. For many years he led a
bachelor’s life. This seemed not to worry him in the least. If, however,
one looks at his works as a kind of diary, a rather different picture
emerges. In the 1890s- 1900s he often depicted scenes of quiet domestic
bliss. These scenes — the feeding of a baby, children bathing, playing
or going for walks, a comer of a garden, a cosy interior — are both
poignant and amusing. Of course, these aspects of life attracted the
other Nabis, too, which was in keeping with the times. But in Bonnard’s
work these motifs are not treated with stressed indifference, as in
Vallotton’s. Bonnard does not conceal the fact that he finds them
attractive. Yet it is not easy to discern a longing for family life in his
work. One might suggest it but without much confidence. Bonnard
seems to remind himself, as always with humour, that family life is
undoubtedly emotionally pleasant, but there is much in it that is
monotonous and even absurd — a truly Chekhovian attitude. The many
commonplace situations treated on account of banality with a degree of
humour are summed up in the monumental portrait of the Terrasse
family, a work unprecedented in European art. Bonnard gave the picture
the title The Terrasse Family (L Apres-midi bourgeoise). It was painted in
1900 and is now in the Bernheim-Jeune collection in Paris (another
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Terrasse Family (L’apres-midi bourgeoise), 1900. Oil on canvas, 139 x 212 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Red Garters, c. 1905. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm, Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Indolence, c. 1899. Oil on canvas, 92 x 108 cm, Private collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Siesta, 1900. Oil on canvas, 109 x 132 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
version is in the Stuttgart State Gallery). The title parodies Mallarme’s
eclogue L'Apres-midi d’un fame. The artist had affection for his
characters and not only because they were his relatives (Bonnard’s sister
Andree was married to the composer Claude Terrasse). Yet he depicted
the dozen or so of them in an ironical parade of provincial idleness, in
all its grandeur and its absurdity.
Around the same time Bonnard painted his Man and Woman (1900,
Musee d’Orsay, Paris), a work with a psychological dramatism quite
unexpected for the artist. The psychological aspect of the work is not a
piece of fiction or illustration of the then fashionable subject of the
conflict between the sexes; it is a self-portrait of the artist with Marthe,
his constant companion and model, in every respect a deeply personal
work. Of course, this painting is not typical of Bonnard: there is no
irony here; we are witnessing a dramatic episode easily identified as
biographical. Both this work and the portrait of the Terrasse family are
worthy of attention, because they show Bonnard not only as a subtle
painter but also as a very complex personality. Meeting Marthe brought
many changes to Bonnard’s life. This girl, who had come to Paris in
search of work and a new life, did not belong to the same social milieu
as Bonnard, and in comparison with him and his friends she was
practically uneducated. Yet she became the artist’s muse. In her
Bonnard found an inexhaustible source of inspiration. She did not sit
specially for him, and “there was no need for this because she was
constantly with him. Her movements flowed out of one another with a
naturalness that can be neither learnt nor forgotten. Some of Bonnard’s
most brilliant pictures were prompted by some pose of her body which
he had noticed.” 10 The presence of Marthe, the mistress of the house, is
unexpectedly revealed in Mirror in the Dressing-Room, now in the
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. In the mirror we can see the
reflection of a small room in which Marthe is drinking coffee,
completely ignoring the model who is in the act of removing her
clothes. They say that it was Bonnard’s wife who compelled him to lead
a secluded life, striving by one means or another to keep him away from
his friends and from Paris. With the years she indeed became an
intolerable person. But there is no evidence that Bonnard ever
complained or expressed dissatisfaction. He was a patient man, and his
love was a wise one. Perhaps he lacked firmness of character. “He was
always afraid of her, her tactless behaviour,” Matisse recalled. “She
tried to cut him off from everyone. True, she received me, saying, ‘Oh,
Matisse is only concerned with his painting.’ 1 suppose she thought 1
wasn’t dangerous.” 11 Bonnard’s friends were definitely convinced that
he was under Marthe ’s thumb. But in actual fact he submitted himself
to the imperatives of his art and Marthe never infringed upon them. He
found it convenient to live in rural solitude and devote all his time to his
work. After the First World War, if he visited Paris at all, he never spent
more than two months in any year in the capital. “1 go there to see
what’s happening, to compare my painting with that of other artists. In
Paris 1 am a critic, I can’t work there. There is too much noise, too many
distractions. I know that other artists become accustomed to that kind of
life. 1 find it difficult.” 12 Bonnard had indeed changed; he seemed to
have forgotten what fascination the rush and bustle of Paris had once
held for him. Bonnard visited many foreign countries, but his travels left
no noticeable traces in his art, which had grown on French soil, in a
French atmosphere. Paris and the Ile-de-France, Normandy, the
Dauphine, and the Cote d’Azur were places where Bonnard worked. In
summer he usually went to some little town or village in one of these
French provinces. He was particularly fond of Vernon and Le Cannet.
Bonnard was an artist of unusual integrity. A scholar attempting to
divide his work into periods would find himself faced with a formidable
task. His early works are marked by a deliberate decorativeness, while
towards the close of his life his paintings become more expressive; at
times this expressiveness is accompanied by dramatic overtones.
However, it is impossible to establish a point when one tendency
exhausted itself and another became a dominant feature of his art. One
is forced inevitably to the conclusion that the whole of Bonnard’s
enormous legacy constitutes a single period. 13 The works painted
between 1888 and 1890, about 15 in all (earlier works have not come
down to us), already clearly indicate which genres the artist preferred:
landscapes, still lifes and portraits. They also include his panel The
Dressing Gown (1889, Musee d’Orsay, Paris), which is as decorative as
a textile, and spontaneous, lively compositions containing human
figures — the type favoured by the Impressionists. An example of the
latter is Street (1889, Milliner collection, Paris), the first of the artist’s
small genre scenes set in Paris, each of which is unique in its own way.
This picture is the prototype for Morning in Paris and Evening in Paris,
paintings now in the Hermitage.
Street and another painting of this period, Woman in the Garden
(Private Collection, Paris), show that Bonnard not only was well
acquainted with Impressionism, but he ventured into its territory as a
polemist rather than a timid pupil: here characteristic Impressionist
motifs are treated in a far from Impressionistic manner. It was only a
short time before Bonnard painted these pictures that the Nabis
learned the lesson taught by Gauguin. However, Bonnard and Vuillard
with him were influenced to a lesser degree by Gauguin than their
companions. While sharing Gauguin’s opposition to Renoir, Pissarro
and Raffaelli, Bonnard and Vuillard drew support not from Gauguin,
but from oriental art, mainly from Japanese prints. French artists had
become interested in Japanese art even before Bonnard was born. The
influence may be traced in Manet’s work and particularly in all the
early works of the Impressionists. Originally it was no more than a
taste for the exotic, but in the latter part of the 1880s this interest
became more profound, and France was swept by a real wave of
enthusiasm for Japanese art. Comparing French paintings of that
period with Japanese prints, art historians have discovered that Monet,
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Nude with Black Stockings, c. 1900. Oil on panel, 59 x 43 cm, Private Collection, on loan to City of Sheffield Art Galleries.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Man and Woman, 1900. Oil on canvas, 115 x 72 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Degas, Redon, Gauguin, Seurat, Signac and others borrowed both
motifs and elements of composition from these prints. Van Gogh
painted his own versions of Japanese prints. He even went to Provence
hoping to find a second Japan there. To one degree or another, all the
Nabis used devices prompted by Japanese woodcuts. Yet it was no
coincidence that one of them was singled out for the nickname “the
Highly Nipponised Nabi” (Nabi Tres Japonard). It is quite reasonable
to link Bonnard’s early urban scenes, including his Street, and the
works not only of the Impressionists, but also of Japanese artists — all
the more so because the Impressionists themselves had been in-
fluenced by Japanese art. A painter of the city, Bonnard undoubtedly
owed a debt to Hiroshige and Kiyonaga.
Japanese prints were by no means a rarity in Paris when Bonnard
studied at the Academie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. One
exhibition of Japanese art was held at the Ecole itself in 1890 and there
can be little doubt that Bonnard was among its most frequent visitors.
Japanese prints were cheap enough for Bonnard and his companions to
be able to buy the odd one. Naturally, these were the latest impressions
which differed considerably from the originals. In his old age Matisse
would recall: “I knew the Japanese only from copies and prints of poor
quality which could be bought in the Rue de Seine by the entrance of
the shops selling engravings. Bonnard said that he did the same and
added that he was rather disappointed when he saw the originals. This
may be explained by foxiness and faded colours of the early print-runs.
Perhaps if we had seen the originals first, we would not have been as
impressed as by the later prints.” 14
“When I came upon these somewhat crude popular pictures,”
Bonnard said, “I realised that colour could express anything without
resort to relief or modelling. It seemed to me that one could render light,
shape, typical properties by colour alone, dispensing with values.” 15 In
order to understand Bonnard’s first creative endeavours, it is essential to
know that he, like the other members of the Nabi group, considered
Japanese prints to be examples of folk art. At that time, he thought of
creating not masterpieces for museums but popular art suitable for
reproduction; in other words, something that was to an extent mass art.
“During that period I myself shared the opinion that artists should
produce works which the general public could afford and which would
be of use in everyday life: prints, furniture, fans, screens and so on.” 16
Only a few of Bonnard’s undertakings in the field of applied arts
actually came to fruition. Among them were a stained-glass panel called
Motherhood, which Tiffany’s made from his cartoon, several screens,
some of them painted, others decorated with colour lithographs. These
screens and the design for a small cupboard with figures of two frisky
dogs — probably Bonnard’s only attempt to try his hand at furniture —
clearly reveal a Japanese influence. Japanese prototypes are also in
evidence in Bonnard’s lithographs. Even his earliest print A Family
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Dressing Gown, c. 1890. Oil on quilted canvas,
154 x 54 cm, Paris, Musee d’Orsay.
Scene (1893) immediately brings to mind Utamaro, Sharaku and
Kunisada. The works of these Japanese artists taught Bonnard the kind
of stark simplicity and refinement that he could never have acquired at
the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Above all, they taught him to abandon the
ideas of perspective, he had been taught to be bold in composition, to
build up his picture as an arrangement of flat silhouettes, to appreciate
the expressive power of a generalized patch of colour, at times
unexpectedly giving close-up views and at times, on the contrary,
arranging the composition in a frieze-like manner. The free and at the
same time energetic use of colour in Japanese woodcuts also brought
Europe much, both in graphic art and in painting. “As for painting,”
Bonnard wrote to Suares, “I learned a lot working in colour lithography.
You discover a great deal when you explore the relationship between
different tones, with only four or five colours at your disposal, placing
them next to or over one another.” 17
Incidentally, even before Bonnard turned to lithography, he tried to
make do with a limited number of colours, applying them in a flat man-
ner. The most telling example of this practice is The Parade Ground
(1890, Private Collection, Paris). It would be hard to find a small
painting in the battle genre to match this picture for richness of colour
and decorativeness, although the work both belongs to and, with its
Japanese features, parodies the genre.
With time the colours in Bonnard’s paintings became more and more
subdued. To some extent this was probably due to his work in
lithography. By the middle of the 1890s the artist obviously began to
prefer colour combinations in which grey and brown tones
predominated. Vuillard was moving in the same direction.
A typical example of this manner is Bonnard’s Behind the Fence
(1895, Hermitage, St Petersburg). What is particularly interesting about
this picture? It does not depict an amusing incident; the fine
draughtsmanship is absent. We see some very ordinary brown-coloured
houses, dark winter tree-trunks, and a monotonous fence running across
the whole composition. The viewer does not immediately notice behind
this fence the solitary figure of a woman, who for some unknown reason
has come out into the cold. Only the white splotches of snow which has
just fallen and is already beginning to melt enliven the scene that does
not catch the eye at all. Has this woman come out to call in a child still
playing in the gathering twilight? Perhaps. She is not dressed to go far
in such weather. But all these thoughts are unlikely to enter the viewer’s
mind. The painting is too generalized to enable us to read something in
the woman’s face. The main thing is, however, that the artist does not
assert that the scene he presents has some kind of narrative to it. It is just
an unassuming corner in the outskirts of Paris made beautiful by the
subdued colouring of the picture, with its shimmering grey tones.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Nursemaids’ Promenade, Frieze of Carriages , 1894.
Tempera on canvas, 147 x 54 cm each panel, Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Tugboat on the Seine, 1911. Oil on canvas, 49 x 53 cm
Although Bonnard’s painting lacks bright colour accents, it is
nevertheless highly decorative. This effect is primarily achieved by the
fence with its diagonal lines. As early as the 1890s the artist was fond
of compositions where prominence was given to grids of lines crossing
at right angles. Usually this is seen in a woman’s dress, sometimes in a
scarf. (Let us recall that Natanson specially noted Bonnard’s love of
check fabrics). The artist’s innate talent as a decorator revealed itself
above all in the way he carefully managed tension in a picture, skilfully
alternating active, checked areas with calm, empty spaces. Art
historians often look on the use of checked areas in Bonnard’s early
work as an extreme manifestation of his Japanism. We can, indeed, find
something similar in Japanese prints, but the artist did not invent
ornaments, rather he was stimulated when in the real world he came
across the things he liked. (His sister Andree also loved check fabrics:
the pattern of her tartan dress, in which blue and red predominated,
determines the main colour characteristics of a whole painting.) There
should be no doubt that the very ordinary fence depicted in the picture
Behind the Fence really existed. “You know, there is nothing in
Bonnard’s work that has not come from observation,” Natanson noted. 18
The middle of the 1890s saw a gradual change in Bonnard’s art.
Having begun as a convinced Post-Impressionist he now moved closer
to the Impressionists, above all to Degas. In 1894 he painted a series of
pictures devoted to horse-racing; in 1 896 he turned to scenes in cafes and
portrayed ballet-dancers; in 1897 he produced several circus scenes. The
influence of Degas is evident in all these works. Bonnard did not reject
the conventions of Japanese art, but adapted them to serve his own
purposes: in his increasingly more realistic approach to the object of
representation, his rendering of light, air and the depth of space. Pissarro,
who had expressed dissatisfaction with Bonnard’s early work, now
voiced a different opinion in a letter to his son. In 1 898 Bonnard received
a letter from Renoir following the publication of Peter Nansen’s novel
Marie. Renoir expressed his admiration for Bonnard’s illustrations for
the book: “You possess the gift of charming. Do not neglect it. You will
come across more powerful painters, but your gift is precious.” 19 When
staying in the south, Bonnard made a point of visiting Cagnes to call on
the old master. The little painting with a dedication, which Renoir gave
him, was Bonnard’s pride and one of his most cherished possessions.
When Bonnard moved to Vernon, he struck up a closer acquaintance
with Claude Monet who lived in Giverny only a few miles away.
Bonnard went to Giverny to enjoy Monet’s beautiful garden, to look at
the landscapes with water lilies on which the leader of the Impressionists
was then working, and to see again the canvases by Delacroix, Corot,
Cezanne and Renoir in his collection. From time to time Monet’s car
drove up to Bonnard’s house called “Ma Roulotte” (my gypsy-wagon).
Monet wanted to see Bonnard’s latest work. They spoke little, but
Bonnard was content with a smile or an encouraging gesture from
Monet. Bonnard continued seeing Monet and Renoir in later years, long
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Bonnard with Marthe (centre) and Suzanne Bernheim de Villers, c. 1913. Private Collection.
after these two very discriminating elder masters had recognized their
younger colleague as a painter of considerable standing. At the turn of
the century Bonnard seems to have been at a crossroads. He might have
continued his experiments in decorative painting. He might have
concentrated his attention on an ironical and psychological approach to
the subject, not unlike that of Toulouse-Lautrec. (His Terrasse Family
provides an excellent example of his capacity in that direction.) He might
have yielded to the temptations of sensual subjects exemplified by the
series of nudes he painted in 1899-1900. He might have focused on
portraiture: his few efforts in that line reveal him as an astute student of
the human soul. In fact, however, most of the works he created at that
time and in the following decade show no marked preference for any one
of these traditional genres. Nor do they show any extreme tendency in
the treatment of the motif whether decorative, naturalistic or
psychological. Later Bonnard would write to the art critic Georges
Besson: “I am drifting between the intimate and the decorative.” 20 Only
a small number of Bonnard’s works produced in the 1980s- 1900s may be
unreservedly classified as belonging to one particular genre: portrait,
nude or landscape. His landscapes, for instance, generally contain people
who are as important a part of the picture as the surrounding scenery.
Looking at his townscapes one tends to wonder what attracted the artist
more — the Parisian streets or their colourful crowds. In the majority of
cases Bonnard does not single out either. The artist treats the streets with
their specifically Parisian hustle and bustle and wealth of colour as a
mixture of landscape and genre scene forming a single whole. With
Bonnard’s indoor scenes, we seem to face the same question. It is far
from easy to decide whether we are looking at a depiction of a room
enlivened by the presence of a human figure, or a genre scene where the
interior serves as a background.
It was, in fact, quite natural for Bonnard to combine several genres in
one picture. An excellent example of this is his Mirror in the Dressing-
Room (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). The painting is
considered a still life, but the elements of interior, portrait and nude are
stronger than they should be in that case. This places the work in a class
of its own among European painting of the early twentieth century.
During this period Bonnard drew noticeably closer to the Impressionists.
In their works, particularly in Degas’s, he found numerous examples of
an unorthodox attitude to genres. His affinity with the Impressionists
expressed itself in the fact that landscape, which always predominated in
Impressionist art, became an ever more important element of his
painting. Moreover, it is also important to note that in his landscapes
Bonnard no longer strove after decorative effect, at least that was no
longer his main objective. His Landscape in the Dauphine in the
Hermitage resembles a casual Impressionistic-style “snapshot view”.
The composition does not appear to follow a preconceived scheme and
it is easy to imagine how it continues on either side. The painting has
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Chequered Blouse, 1892. Oil on canvas, 61 x 33 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
none of the earlier flatness; the eye is led far into the distance. The
landscape, however, lacks the Impressionist luminosity. Unlike the
Impressionists for whom light was of paramount importance, Bonnard
valued colour above all. The Landscape in the Dauphine does not attract
attention immediately. It takes time to appreciate the modest beauty of
the rather dirty green colours. Bonnard managed to catch the hues of the
somewhat prosaic Dauphine countryside, seen, as it were, through the
eyes of a peasant. That is not to say that the treatment of the subject
reflects the usual aesthetic tastes of peasants, who would probably not
like the landscape. It is more the psychological aspect, a specific sense
of place. To some degree, at least, Bonnard perceives the world as it is
seen by his characters themselves — in the case of this painting by
peasants working in the fields on a rainy autumn day.
Another illustration of Bonnard’s ability to look at whatever he was
depicting through the eyes of his characters is his townscape A Comer
of Paris. In the centre of the composition is a small group of children out
for a walk. The ingenuous curiosity and wonder with which they see the
surrounding world is echoed by the bright posters pasted on a large
board. The humorous notes discernible in paintings like A Corner of
Paris are absent in the landscapes containing no human figures, such as
the two paintings of the Seine near Vernon, one in Moscow, the other in
St Petersburg. It is noteworthy that landscapes of this type are both more
lyrical and less decorative. In general, Bonnard’s works are usually
more decorative when they contain human figures.
It was when Bonnard was working on his Corner of Paris that the
Fauves caught the public eye. Bonnard’s paintings were less bright than
the works of the Impressionists; next to the garish creations of the
Fauves, constructed on a rolling crescendo of colours, they looked
utterly faded, even timid. This impression was, of course, deceptive, and
Matisse, the leader of the Fauves, was well aware of this. But the public
and even the critics found it difficult to discern the quiet melody of
Bonnard’s painting among the deafening trumpets of the Fauves. It
would be wrong to suggest that Bonnard was not influenced at all by
Henri Matisse and his friends. The Parisian series he produced for Ivan
Morozov in 1911 was painted in more vivid colours than A Corner of
Paris. But Bonnard could never have become a follower of Matisse: his
temperament and the circumstances of his artistic development, very
different from those of the Fauves, precluded that.
It was not only Bonnard’s tendency to approach his subject
intimately that made him reject the scarcity of artistic means to which
Matisse and Picasso had come in the first decade of the twentieth
century and which had brought them world-wide recognition as the
trend-setters in contemporary art. Bonnard did not consider
Impressionism entirely passe, yet he wrote, “When my friends and I
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Family Scene, 1893. Colour lithograph, 31x18 cm. Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
decided to follow the Impressionists, attempting to develop their
achievements, we strove to overcome their naturalistic conception of
colour. Art is not copying nature. We were more mindful of com-
position. We felt that colour should be used more effectively as a means
of expression. But artistic development had gained such momentum that
society was ripe to accept Cubism and Surrealism long before we had
achieved our goal. We found ourselves in an uncertain position.” 21
It is hardly surprising that at the beginning of the twentieth century the
young artists who joined the avant-garde considered the work of Bonnard
and other artists of his circle rather old-fashioned and dull. They were
completely overwhelmed by Matisse’s Red Room and The Dance and by
Picasso’s Cubist experiments. Bonnard’s Mirror in the Dressing-Room was
painted at the time when Matisse and Picasso were creating some of their
famous still lifes, including Picasso’s Composition with a Skull, now in the
Hermitage collection, and Matisse’s Red Room, which is halfway to being
a still life. Comparing all these works, one is bound to appreciate
Matisse’s and Picasso’s unusual boldness, yet one is also sure to realise
how much painting would have lost without Bonnard, already outside the
mainstream of artistic development.
Mirror in the Dressing-Room is a wonderful illustration of how
Bonnard used the lessons learned from the Impressionists, and from
Degas in particular. At the same time it exemplifies the complete
subordination of Impressionistic elements to a deeply individual and in
essence non-lmpressionistic conception. It would hardly be justified to
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Parade Ground, 1890. Oil on canvas, 23 x 31 cm. Private Collection, Paris.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, A Barracks Scene, 1890. Oil on canvas, 40.5 x 32.5 cm. Private Collection.
speak here of the relationship between a pupil and his teachers. Mirror
in the Dressing-Room clearly shows that structurally Bonnard’s work
was far more complicated than that of the Impressionists. Never in any
of their still lifes did the Impressionists use so many motifs as well as
compositional and spatial devices forming one integral whole; nor did
they ever place such surprisingly diverse objects in apposition.
When Impressionism was in its heyday, Renoir painted an unusual
still life, A Bunch of Flowers in front of a Mirror (1876, Private
Collection, Paris). Looking at this fleeting vision of bright flowers, one
finds it difficult to tell which of the two bunches is real; and the painter
took pleasure in exploiting this effect. In Bonnard’s work the mirror
plays a different role. It has already been stated that no other feature
reveals Bonnard’s divergence from the Impressionists as clearly as his
fondness for using a mirror in his compositions. 22 The rectangle of the
mirror breaks the surface of the wall in practically the same way as an
open window. Compositions containing open windows, so beloved of
the Romantics, are easily understood. An open window leads the eye
into the depths, giving added impetus to the view, while a mirror seems
to cast the eye back into the space behind the viewer. The viewer feels
himself to be not in front of the scene, but inside it. It takes some time
to comprehend the relative positions of all the elements in the
composition: those reflected in the mirror and thus behind the viewer,
and those which are beside the mirror and hence facing the viewer.
A human presence is sensed in Bonnard’s still lifes even when they
contain no human figure. But the most important detail of the Moscow
still life is the fact that the mirror — in the centre of the composition,
and also its brightest spot — reflects the model and the artist’s wife
unconcernedly drinking her coffee. Thus this still life does not merely
represent various toilet paraphernalia, but tells the viewer something
about the artist, whose studio and living-room were one and whose
creative activity was more than just a job of work. The mirror is an age-
old element of the vanitas type of still life traditionally linked with the
motif of a nude figure. Bonnard, however, did not attempt to build up
an allegory. The mirror gave him an opportunity to correlate the details
reflected in it (his wife Marthe, the cup in her hand, the model) with the
various articles on the washstand. With this diversity of details, colour
gains a special significance. Soft, muted tones predominate. On the
back of the picture Bonnard wrote: “Do not varnish”. The matt effect is
very important in this picture. Without it the expressive range of bluish-
grey tones would have lost its wonderful subtlety and richness. It is
colour that ennobles articles in Bonnard’s still life. Natanson recollected
that Bonnard took great delight in watching reflections in a mirror as it,
“like him, gave its caress to objects”. 23
The Moscow still life belongs to a series of ten pictures painted by
Bonnard over a span of eight years. In the first two canvases — Girl
* Edgar Degas, Mister Perrot’s Dance Lesson , 1873-1875. Oil on canvas, 85 x 75 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Misia, 1908. Oil on canvas, 145 x 114 cm, Fondagion Coleccion Thessen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
Drying Herself and The Toilette (1907, Private Collection; D 473, 477)
— the most important elements are the nude figures, while the
dressing-table and mirror serve merely as a background. In the next
picture. Nude against the Light (1908, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts,
Brussels), Bonnard depicted a young girl looking at herself in a mirror
with its “Japanese” frame already familiar from the Moscow still life,
and the composition is more complicated. The painting may with
equal justification be regarded as “a nude” or “an interior”, since the
details of the room are more than merely a background for the figure.
Together with the girl, they form part of a colourful spectacle.
Comparing this picture with the Mirror in the Dressing-Room, one can
understand why Bonnard painted the latter in greyish-blue colours. In
Nude against the Light a window is seen in the middle, while in Mirror,
where the same room is depicted, the window takes up only a narrow
strip of the picture. Consequently all the objects in the first still life,
the table and the wall with the mirror, are seen in backlighting. A
further development along these lines may be observed in The Toilette
(Musee d’Orsay, Paris, D 486), which may be viewed as a preliminary
version of the Moscow still life. Here Bonnard draws even closer to a
still life free of the former limitations of the genre. In 1909, 1913 and
1914 Bonnard again returned to the mirror motif. In the Dressing-Table
with a Bunch of Red and Yellow Flowers (1913, D 772) the size and the
basic features of the composition are the same as in the Mirror in the
Dressing-Room , but the colour scheme determined by the inclusion of
the flowers is different. The next composition. The Toilette (1914, Art
Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts), is no longer a still life but a pure
interior with the same dressing-table. However, the window next to it
Depicting objects which were always at hand or turning to outdoor
scenes, Bonnard did not strive to recapture an immediate impression. As
a rule, he started working on his painting only when such impressions
had taken root in his mind and passed through the filter of the artist’s
memory. Feeling no obligation to reproduce an object of his observation
precisely, he included in his pictures only that aspect of it which could
be subordinated to the imperatives of art. In this way he made every area
of his canvases rich in texture and colour.
The impact Bonnard’s works have on the viewer does not rest solely
on his ability to reveal the most painterly aspect of an ordinary object,
but also on the hidden metaphorical and universal meaning of the colours
he used. For this reason Bonnard never tired of depicting the same
objects, and turned again and again to the same motifs. Of course, this
practice never amounted to mere repetition. His way towards revealing
the beauty inherent in any object lay primarily through the rich
expressive resources of colour, making a metaphorical link with what is
precious. Bonnard believed that “a picture is a patchwork of colours
which when combined with each other, in the final analysis form an
♦ Henri Matisse, The Red Room, 1908. Oil on canvas, 1 80 x 220 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Child Eating Cherries, 1895. Oil on board, 52 x 41 cm. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
object in such a way as to allow the eye to glide freely over it without
encountering obstacles”. 24 Bonnard delighted in walking the tightrope
between stylised decorative abstraction and unstylised realism. His
Landscape with a Goods Train (Train and Fishing Boats ) provides a typical
example. Each detail of the landscape may puzzle the viewer. It takes
time to identify the tree in the right lower comer for what it is or the
vineyard on the left. All details are governed by the ensemble of tones.
That is why Bonnard is inevitably vague. It is as if he was reproducing
the impression of a person walking down a path or, perhaps, looking at
the scene from a moving train. For instance, it takes time to make out the
fascinating figure of a little girl. This “sketchy” manner of painting is
very characteristic of Bonnard. He tends to avoid a close scrutiny of his
characters. Looking at the Landscape with a Goods Train, the viewer finds
himself drawn into a system of resemblances. In pictorial terms, as well
as by some inner meaning, the head of the little girl, the clump of trees,
the puffs of smoke coming from the engine and the tugs, and the clouds
are linked in a common chain. For all the relative nature of brushstrokes
or, perhaps, because of it, the viewer is made to feel himself inside the
picture, as in the Mirror in the Dressing-Room. For this reason too, the
foreground is more blurred than the rest of the picture. Here, in a
panoramic landscape, Bonnard retains the intimacy typical of his work.
The Landscape with a Goods Train and Early Spring. Little Fauns address
the viewer in the artist’s usual quiet tones. They are imbued with his
unique brand of lyricism and winning archness. With an ease typical of
him, Bonnard introduces a group of fauns into his landscape, figures
which could never have appeared in the canvases of the Impressionists.
The puffed out cheeks of the faun playing the pipe is a delight. One does
not immediately notice these little goat-legged creatures at the edge of
♦ Pablo Picasso, Composition with a Skull, 1907. Oil on canvas, 115 x 88 cm. Hermitage, St Petersburg.
♦ Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1909-1910. Oil on canvas, 260 x 391 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Nude Against the Light, 1908. Oil on canvas, 124.5 x 108 cm, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Young Woman Seated on a Chaise longue, c. 1904. 53 x 60 cm, Location unknown.
♦ Gustave Caillebotte, A Paris Street in the Rain, 1877. Oil on canvas, 212.2 x 276.2 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The People’s Square in Rome , 1921. Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 96.5 cm, The Phillips collection, Washington.
the painting, but once one does, one cannot banish them from this
convincingly real corner of the Ile-de-France. And this unpretentious yet
endearing landscape seems alive with the gentle silvery sounds of the
pipe. By introducing fauns into his landscape, Bonnard endowed it with
metaphorical overtones. A friend of the Symbolists, he used their
poetical methods, at the same time gently mocking them. It is hard to
decide what is more important in this picture, the humour or the joy at
nature reawakening. It is this unity of poetic joy and gentle irony that
makes the landscape of the countryside around Paris at the same time an
embodiment of the mythical Golden Age.
The nature of Bonnard’s relationship with Impressionism, a key
factor in his art, reveals itself most vividly in the subjects he chose and
in his compositions. The Parisian townscapes may serve as an
illustration. In comparison with his early pictures of Paris, the urban
scenes executed in 191 1-12, representing one of the peaks in Bonnard’s
art, are remarkable for their more complex composition. They contain
more human figures, more space and more light, and they are richer in
colouring. These features place them close to the works of Monet,
Pissarro and Renoir. An Impressionistic flavour is strongly felt in his
city scenes Morning in Paris and Evening in Paris, a pair of works
painted for Ivan Morozov and seemingly bearing all the marks of a
casually observed scene. In fact, of course, this was not the case. Both
pictures were painted from memory, as was Bonnard’s usual practice. In
these two townscapes Bonnard was particularly attentive to composi-
tion and in this respect, as before, he demonstrated a closer affinity to
Degas rather than to Monet and Pissarro. Indeed in his very conception
of street scenes Bonnard also followed Degas, or perhaps even
Caillebotte, while Monet and Pissarro, the founding fathers of the
Impressionistic townscape, were absorbed with a desire to show street
life with its unceasing movement from a distance and avoided close-up
or even middle-ground views of pedestrians. Yet unlike Degas (Place de
la Concorde, 1873, Hermitage) and still less like Caillebotte (A Paris
Street in the Rain, 1 877, Art Institute of Chicago) Bonnard does not focus
on the human figures and avoids depicting them in detail. The soft,
subdued patches of colour affect the viewer before he has become aware
of what this or that patch actually represents. Bonnard’s wonderfully
orchestrated colour arrangements are not arbitrary. In Morning in Paris,
the blue and pink tones of the sky and the cool hues of the foreground
are so true to life that they alone, even without the scurrying pedestrians
and the coal-merchant’s cart with its early-morning load, clearly
indicate the time of the day. But even after we realise the significance
of the colour, that does not reduce its charm; quite the contrary, it is
increased. The patches of colour do no more than “name” the objects
depicted. They are sufficiently autonomous, and the beauty of their
combinations could serve as a powerful justification for their
At the same time, each masterly brushstroke and each patch of
colour possess a wonderfully keen and expressive force. The vagueness
of Bonnard’s painting does not reduce but intensifies that
expressiveness. For example, the patch of colour representing a dog in
Morning in Paris shows only its body and tail, but these details are
enough to reveal the animal’s behaviour with a striking liveliness and
precision. In the same picture, the silhouette of the coal-merchant’s
donkey heavily and hurriedly moving its slipping legs may serve as
another example. There is no animal painter of modern times who
understood the character of animals better than Bonnard. With the alert
eye of a master, Bonnard also catches a person’s way of walking or
behaving. The old flower-seller in Evening in Paris moves in a manner
typical of her alone, unhurriedly measuring each step. The children
fooling about a bit in the street move as only children can.
The details of the picture are so arranged as to give an impression
of the Parisian way of life. In Morning in Paris in the foreground the
artist depicts people who have to rise early — the old coal merchant, a
group of young girls hurrying to work, a little boy loitering on his way
to school. In Evening in Paris the movement of the figures is quite
different. Here people are out for a stroll. In the first picture, Bonnard
depicts a square, a junction of different streams of movement; in the
second, a boulevard. In the first case, the artist needs an open space; in
the second, a closed space. In the morning scene it is important to show
the sunrise colours of the sky and the walls of houses catching the first
rays of the sun; for the scene at dusk other details are necessary. “What
is beautiful in nature”, said Bonnard, “is not always beautiful in
painting, especially in reduction. One example is the effects of evening
and night.” 25 They say that Felix Feneon, the manager of the Bernheim
Gallery, once casually remarked to Bonnard that his Parisian street
scenes were a Success, after which the artist stopped painting them. 26
This may have taken place in 1912, when the series of works
commissioned by Morozov was on display for the first time at the
gallery. Bonnard was always mistrustful of success; to his mind, it
made an artist repeat himself. Whatever the truth of the matter,
Bonnard’s last picture of this kind, Place Clichy, is dated 1912 (Musee
des Beaux-Arts et d’Archeologie, Besantjon). It is a large painting
which appears to be a sort of synthesis of the motifs in the Moscow
works. The liveliness, the unassuming simplicity of the subject, an
apparently casual composition which, however, always has a
“framework” (Bonnard’s word) and is well balanced, the mobility of
texture, with each brushstroke vibrating in every patch of colour — all
these elements are characteristic of an easel painting. It would seem
from this that Bonnard had no special talent for monumental art, yet his
large decorative panels are excellent. All the Nabis produced works in
this field, but the most notable were by Bonnard, for his art is devoid
of the deliberate solemnity nearly always present in monumental
♦ Pierre Bonnard, La Promenade, c. 1900. Oil on canvas, 38x31 cm, Private Collection.
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painting. Bonnard’s most outstanding large work is undoubtedly the
triptych entitled Mediterranean.
Working on large paintings, Bonnard did not invent a new style. On
the whole, his manner remained the same as in his small canvases. True,
in these he used simpler, clearer compositions and the overall tonality
changed under the influence of the southern lighting. The artist’s sincerity,
his deeply personal and poetic vision of reality and his unerring feeling
for colour helped him to work on large surfaces with undiminished
confidence. Displaying a close affinity to the elderly Monet with his
water-lilies series and his great panels for the Orangerie, Bonnard left a
noticeable mark in decorative painting, although the path thus mapped out
was not followed by succeeding generations of monumental artists.
The triptych forms, in fact, one picture — a landscape on three sub-
frames. At the same time, each canvas is compositionally complete. For
this reason each panel requires space around it, “room to breathe”.
Bonnard knew that the staircase in Morozov’s mansion for which the
triptych was intended had semi-columns and he planned that they would
act as spacers within the composition. The semi-columns served both as
frames and as functional elements of the scene. The subject of the
triptych is a garden with a view of the Mediterranean. The garden is not
empty: the central panel features an amusing group of children playing;
each of the side panels includes a young woman. Although all the
human figures are placed in shadow, the triptych would lose a great deal
without these gently graceful, typically Bonnardian women and the
funny, restless children. Yet, the landscape is more important here than
the human figures, a landscape which is not wild and primordial, but
cultivated, a landscape produced by hundreds of years of European
civilization nurtured by the Mediterranean.
A great deal of space in the garden is taken up by the trees. Their
theatrical and festive arabesques set the general, decorative tone of the
pictures and create a feeling of luxuriant nature. In the background,
which nevertheless seems somehow close to the viewer, subordinate to
the rules of flat landscape painting, is the alluring blue of the
Mediterranean, the birthplace of European civilization. A comparison
with View of Saint-Tropez (1909, Hahnloser collection, Bern), the
forerunner of the central panel, shows that in the triptych Bonnard
omitted the opening to the sea. This made the composition more tranquil
and even majestic. It is not just a view, but an image of the
Mediterranean. In this respect the triptych painted for Morozov
represents a new stage in Bonnard’s evolution, although the stylized
treatment of the trees goes back to the artist’s experiments in the 1890s.
When Morozov commissioned two more panels to complete the
triptych, Bonnard returned to already familiar subjects: early spring and
the middle of autumn. These two panels flanked the triptych that
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Woman in the Garden (panel 1, 2, 3, 4), 1891. Oil on
paper mounted on canvas, 4 panels, 160 x 48 cm each, Musee
represented summer time, and thus formed a seasons-of-the-year
ensemble. Early Spring in the Countryside and Autumn. Fruit-Picking are
technically inferior to the triptych, but they complement it admirably.
Though Bonnard had not visited Moscow, he had a good idea of the setting
in Morozov’s mansion where the works would be hung. The triptych was
to decorate the main staircase, extending its vista, and for that reason had
to have additional depth. The two panels ordered later were to hang on the
side walls. They are flatter and more restrained in colour, while the
decorative treatment of the trees is reminiscent of ancient tapestries. The
panels also display features linking them with oriental art. Clive Bell, an
English art critic, once perspicaciously remarked that “Bonnard’s pictures
as a rule grow not as trees; they float as water-lilies. European pictures, as
a rule, spring upwards, masonry-wise, from their foundation; the design of
a picture by Bonnard, like that of many Chinese pictures and Persian
textiles, seems to have been laid on the canvas as one might lay cautiously
on dry grass some infinitely precious figured gauze.” 27
In the panels representing spring and autumn, Bonnard obviously
depicted gardens in the north, a fact to which the preliminary sketches
also testify. In another panel — Summer. The Dance — painted in the
same year and to a considerable extent related to Morozov’s ensemble,
Bonnard depicted a southern landscape. The artist admitted that he
preferred the northern light, but to the viewer the difference between the
north and the south is of secondary importance. Whatever the case, he
sees first and foremost Bonnard’s vision of nature and only after that a
definite landscape in Saint-Tropez or Vernonnet. However decorative
Bonnard’s representation of nature is, it never becomes a mere
background subordinated to the human figures. The regally transformed
world of vegetation is the embodiment of Bonnard’s dream, his ideal,
his joy, at times masked by a humorous and, at first glance, flippant
irony. However, the beautiful nature in his paintings rejects dramatic or
prosaic events, didactic subjects or subjects with a pathetic tinge. But it
readily admits a group of children playing or women enjoying a chance
to relax. Even the fruit-picking in the panel Autumn reminds one of a
game rather than work.
In Bonnard’s pictures of nature in festive mood only isolated features
remind one of the real-world prototypes. That is not to say that the artist
felt no need of any original for his decorative paintings. These wonderful
states of nature were not invented but observed. While painting his earthly
paradise, Bonnard, however, did not feel obliged to reproduce all the
details of a real scene. Depicting the landscape of Provence in Summer.
The Dance, he introduced into it, without hesitation, a usual motif of his
— the games and pranks of his sister’s children, which he loved watching
and even joining in with. Of course, that did not take place in the south.
The characters in the panel Summer. The Dance are not those depicted in
the group portrait of the Terrasse family. They are imaginary, but they do
make one think of their prototypes. Bonnard’s fantasy, like that of any
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace at Vernon, c. 1928. Oil on canvas,
242.5 x 309 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Diisseldorf.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Provincial Pot, 1930. Oil on canvas, 75.5 x 62 cm, Private Collection, Switzerland.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Breakfast Room, 1930-1931. Oil on canvas, 159.6 x 113.8 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
great artist, was founded on impressions from real life, and it is important
to stress that on the whole these were happy, joyful impressions. In this
respect Bonnard was a follower of Watteau, Fragonard and Renoir, and a
fellow of his contemporaries, Matisse and Duly. Not only in his
decorative panels, but also in his easel compositions depicting open-air
scenes, Bonnard sacrificed the anthropocentrism deeply rooted in
European art, to the joyous, happy world he created. An excellent
example of this is provided by the Moscow picture Summer in Normandy.
Here nothing has been invented. The work shows two women having a
chat on the terrace of the villa “Ma Roulotte” in Vernonnet. The one on
the left is the artist’s wife. The dog, Ubu, always nearby, is looking up at
them from below with an expectation typical of dogs. In the background,
the Seine glistens behind the trees. Although the two women are in the
foreground, one does not notice them at once. The viewer’s attention is
attracted primarily to the garden and the fields in the background, since
Marthe’s figure is placed in the shadow, while that of her friend, who is
sitting in the sun, is masked by a green dress. But even when one notices
the women, one perceives them as an integral part of this wonderful
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Sombre Nude, 1942-1946. Oil on canvas, 81 x 55 cm, Private Collection, Paris.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Circus Horse, 1936-1946. Oil on canvas, 94 x 118 cm, Private Collection, Fontainebleau.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Descent to Cannet, 1940. Oil on canvas, 65 x 72 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, Robert Lehman
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Landscape at Le Cannet, View Over the Roof-tops , 1941-1942. Oil on canvas, 80 x 104 cm, Private Collection.
corner of nature. There is nothing in this picture of the role formerly
played by landscape — as a background for a human figure depicted in
the foreground and thus inevitably dominant. The basis of the harmony at
which Bonnard aimed was a happy coexistence of man and nature. “One
morning, on his way from ‘Ma Roulotte’, Bonnard instinctively walked
towards two men discussing something near an ancient poplar tree, a tree
which played an important role in the surrounding landscape and which
he always greeted with a friendly smile whenever he happened to pass by.
It turned out that the two men, the owner of the land and a timber-
merchant, were discussing felling the tree. They seemed to have come to
an agreement. Digging into his pocket, Bonnard produced more notes
than the buyer could ever have offered, and the tree was saved. With his
dachshund at his heel, Bonnard walked happily away, feeling the
astonishment of the two men behind his back. He walked away with a
tight heart because the old poplar would continue to hold up that vital
landscape.” 28 Today Bonnard’s popularity is on the rise. The public is
becoming aware of the unique beauty of his paintings and of the wise
warmth of the artist’s spirit. The delight Bonnard took in nature is perhaps
appreciated all the more today, when we find ourselves confronted with
ecological problems at every turn.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Yellow Boat, 1938. 58 x 76 cm. Location unknown.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Almond Tree in Bloom, 1947. Oil on canvas, 55 x 37.5 cm, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
MAST ERW ORKS
Behind the Fence
Derriere la grille
Oil on cardboard. 31 x 35 cm
Hermitage, St Petersburg
This picture is typical of Bonnard's early period in which he used the
decorative effect of checks and squares borrowed from Japanese art.
One could already identify this technique in Woman with Dog (Sterling
and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown). A similar method of
setting off a female figure against a diagonal pattern is employed in
Promenade (Private collection, Winterthur). Kiosk on the Boulevard
(Private collection, Paris) and At the Park (Private collection) also
display the same kind of design with their distinctive treatment of the
black, bare trees, while their dimensions are practically the same (34 x
33 cm and 36 x 39.5 cm). Both Promenade and Kiosk on the Boulevard
were dated by the Daubervilles to about 1894; it would be more
accurate, however, to date them to the year 1895, thus bringing them
into line with the Hermitage picture, which can safely be regarded as a
starting point in establishing the chronological order of Bonnard's work
of that period. In fact, Behind the Fence is one of the two 1895 pictures
dated by the artist himself. It was the first oil painting by Bonnard to be
brought to Russia (before 1903) and also the earliest work by him now
in a Russian museum collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, At the Park, 1900. Oil on cardboard, 36 x 39.5 cm, Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Woman with Dog, 1891. Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 32.4 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, USA.
Landscape in the Dauphine
Paysage du Dauphine
Oil on panel. 45.5 x 56 cm
Hermitage, St Petersburg
The picture belongs to Bonnard’s early period, a fact which is borne
out, among other things, by the obviously Japanese treatment of the
landscape. While painting it, Bonnard apparently had in mind sheet 18
from Hiroshige’s series of woodcuts 69 Stations of Kisokaido (1837-42)
and Hodagaya on Tokaido (1823-29) by Hokusai. The 1965 catalogue
raisonne of Bonnard’s painting compiled by the Daubervilles dates the
picture to about 1905. The compilers knew it only from photographs
and clearly had no documentary evidence to define the date, therefore
they relied on the style alone. Yet it is stylistic features that set
Landscape in the Dauphine apart from those of Bonnard’s works which
indisputably do date from 1905. It depicts the valley in the foothills of
the Alps near Grand-Lemps, where the artist spent his childhood in his
grandfather’s home and where he repeatedly returned later in life.
Incidentally, Vollard, who sold Landscape in the Dauphine to Ivan
Morozov, possessed quite a few of Bonnard’s early works, including
some dating from 1 899.
Vollard wrote to Ivan Morozov on 28 June 1907 that he could let
him know the titles of the pictures just handed over to him by the artist
himself: “...the landscape-format picture is called Paysage du
Dauphine" (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts archives). It is also known as
Green Landscape, the title written on the reverse of the panel.
A Corner of Paris.
Oil on cardboard pasted on parquet panel
49.2 x 51.8 cm
Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Although this landscape clearly represents a corner of Paris (probably
in the neighbourhood of the rue de Douai, where the artist’s workshop
was located), the painting is so hazy that it is difficult to distinguish
between the small details, the posters on the wall and the figures.
The patch of children almost merges into the background. The theme of
groups of children in the streets of Paris interested Bonnard as early as
the 1890s: one has only to look at two small paintings of his produced
in 1898. With regard to the posters, Bonnard had always shown a real
interest in this genre of art and he worked successfully in this field at the
beginning of his career. In the Dauberville catalogue the date of this
painting is shown as 1905, which can be confirmed by the distinctive
stylistic techniques that have been used.
On 28 June 1907, Vollard said in his letter to Morozov that he had the
occasion to reveal the title of the painting that he had just received from
the artist. The painting, representing buildings and trees, was called A
Corner of Paris.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, On the way to school, 1895. Oil on canvas, 27 x 43 cm, Washington National Gallery of Art.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Grands Boulevards, 1896. Oil on canvas, 27 x 33.6 cm, Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury.
Mirror in the Dressing Room
Oil on canvas. 125 x 110 cm
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
Mirror in the Dressing-Room is the only still life by Bonnard in the
Russian collections. It is one of the most wide-ranging of his works in
terms of genre as well as one of the most captivating for its visual
harmony. A painting as complex as this required not only daring, but
also the considerable experience accumulated over twenty years of
work. Bonnard’s earliest still lifes, including student pieces dating back
to 1888, were far removed from the solution of complex issues of genre
and space; they are straightforward presentations of bouquets of
flowers, colourful and attractive.
This painting is interesting for the fact that it records meticulously
certain details of the artist’s domestic environment. It might also be
termed autobiographical because one of the women depicted is easily
recognisable as Bonnard’s muse and lifelong companion Marthe
(Marie) Boursin. The unforced naturalness of her pose — her unique
way of holding a cup of coffee, which can be seen again in later
depictions of Marthe — is captured with a striking persuasiveness. The
painting leaves a question mark about Marthe ’s exact role: either
mistress of the house or a model in a moment of relaxation. This is
natural, since Marthe posed for Bonnard more often than anyone else.
A photograph has survived, taken by the artist himself, in which
Marthe is seen washing herself in a basin against the background of the
dressing-table. It dates from the time when this painting was produced.
The juxtaposition of two women, one naked, the other clothed, has
about it an element of irony, which was highly characteristic of
Bonnard. A somewhat unusual feature of this painting is the inclusion
of the mirror. A detail of this kind occurred quite often in the work of
the Old Masters, most frequently as an element in vanitas compositions
which through the idiom of juxtaposed objects spoke of the transitory
nature of life and of human vanity. Sometimes a mirror was depicted in
combination with a statuette of a half-naked woman which symbolized
Art. However, this kind of object symbolism had lost its original
meaning as early as the eighteenth century. In their still lifes Bonnard’s
immediate predecessors, the Impressionists, hardly ever used a mirror
as a compositional element. The great exception is Edouard Manet’s
Bar at the Folies-Bergere, a work with a considerable number of still-
life features in which the mirror is not so much a background as a
spatial display screen — a device with which Bonnard was
The basic structural elements of Mirror in the Dressing-Room had
formed long before 1908. For example, in 1894 the artist painted The
Cup of Coffee which depicts a girl at a little table holding a coffee-cup.
The following year, in response to a commission for the decoration of
a bathroom and boudoir, Bonnard produced a series of grisaille and
red-chalk nudes in which we can detect the influence of Degas. Degas
had been the first to depict nudes in huge basins or baths, at their
toilette, without prettifying them in any degree. Particularly notable in
this regard is his 1876-77 series of mono-types (some of them touched
with pastel). It is quite probable that Bonnard saw one or more of
Degas’ nudes shown standing with a jug and basin at the dressing-
table, her back to the viewer — either After the Bath (Private
Collection) or Woman at Her Toilette (Norton Simon Foundation,
Pasadena). The latter is very close to Bonnard’s Moscow composition,
even to the point of various details coinciding. The subject matter may
also have been prompted by other works by Degas, whose love of
unusual compositional arrangements and unexpected viewpoints in
his depictions of nudes must surely have made a strong impression on
Bonnard. Yet in Mirror in the Dressing-Room Degas’s influence is less
detectable than in the works which preceded it. By 1908 Bonnard had
emerged as an artist who engaged with assurance in a dialogue with
his predecessors. Thus a detail such as the large basin on the dressing-
table combined with the reflection in the mirror of the model, who
seems proportionally considerably smaller, reminding us of the
treatment given to similar motifs in Degas’s work, bears a slightly
The year 1902 is the approximate date given to Nude Washing or Rural
Toilette which, with its depiction of the model from behind in
backlighting, is a prototype of the nudes of 1908, among which Mirror in
the Dressing-Room can to a certain extent be included. Another of these
prototypes is Woman Undressing (c. 1905), in which the model is
presented against the background of a mirror. A more immediate
predecessor of Mirror in the Dressing-Room was the painting entitled The
Dressing-Room or Girl Drying Herself ( 1 907, Private Collection, Paris).
The Moscow work looks like a sort of inversion of this one in which
rather than the model being caught in the mirror, the dressing-table and
the toilet accoutrements serve as a background for her. It is possible that
the same girl posed for that picture as for Mirror in the Dressing-Room. It
was however Bonnard’s next painting in the series that would become one
of his greatest achievements. It is known by three different titles:
Dressing-Room with Pink Couch', Eau de Cologne', and Nude against the
Light (1908, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). The model,
depicted half-turned from behind, is on the right, the dressing-table on the
left; the two elements are intended to balance each other. In the middle
there is a window whose silvery-azure light sets the colour key for the
whole painting. Although the different titles for the Brussels canvas
reflect, as it were, the difficulty of pinning it down to a particular genre,
it must be acknowledged that it tends most towards the nude: the model
remains the chief feature. In that late variant of the Moscow composition
the horizontal element is dominant. The format of the painting and the
mirror are subordinated to one and the same module. The imitation-
bamboo frame in the Moscow painting and some of its variants introduces
a slight Japanese element, entirely natural for the “Nipponised Nabi”. We
should not interpret this alteration as meaning that Bonnard really did
change the frame of his dressing-table mirror; while conveying the spirit
and some particular features of his domestic environment, he felt under
no obligation to merely copy from nature and depicted the frame first in
one way and then another, depending on what better suited the needs of
the composition. There is one further postscript to the Moscow still life
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Bathroom Mirror, 1914. Oil on canvas, 72 x 88.5 cm, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Dressing Table with a bunch of Red and Yellow Flowers, 1913. Oil on canvas, 125 x 110 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
— Reflection in the Mirror or The Tub (1909, Private Collection,
Switzerland). In it only a small corner of the dressing-table is shown, but
the viewpoint chosen means that the table-top with the basin is reflected
in the mirror as well as the model and part of the interior. A few years later
Bonnard returned to the motif of the Moscow painting in Dressing-Table
with a Bunch of Red and Yellow Flowers (1913 Museum of Fine Arts,
Houston) in which the flowers in the jug become the centre of the
composition and the mirror shows the model seated. The following year,
in The Dressing-Room (Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) the table
and mirror are no longer the main element but part of the larger interior.
For all its positive qualities, this last canvas lacks the sharpness and ease
which distinguish Mirror in the Dressing-Room.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, In the Bathroom, 1907. Oil on board, 107 x 72 cm, Private Collection, Lausanne.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Reflection in the Mirror, 1909. Oil on canvas, 73 x 84.5, Private Collection, Switzerland.
Early Spring. Little Fauns
Premier Printemps. Les Petits Faunes
Oil on canvas (relined). 102.5 x 125 cm
Hermitage, St Petersburg.
The picture can be assumed to have been inspired in part by
Mallarme’s L’Apres-midi d’un faune (c. 1865). All the Nabis were very
fond of this joyous eclogue, yet in aiming to recreate the spirit of
Mallarme’s poetry Bonnard knew better than to produce a mere
illustration. Besides, one cannot but recall Debussy’s Prelude of the
same title (1894), which was also inspired by Mallarme. Bearing that in
mind, the musical theme of the Hermitage picture — the faun playing
his reed-pipe — is not coincidental.
Bonnard first turned to pastoral motifs in 1902, when Vollard
commissioned him to illustrate Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe. He was
preceded by Roussel, who had by that time made lithographs for the
Album of Landscapes (1899), also to Vollard’s commission. Bonnard
appreciated Roussel’s art and knew both the Album of Landscapes and
Fauns and Nymphs (c. 1904, Bretegnier- Andre collection, Paris). In
1907, he painted a small-size panel of a similar subject known under
various titles: Faun, Rape of the Nymph, L Apres-midi d’un faune (Private
Collection). A larger panel also exists called The Fauns (Private
collection, Switzerland; D 329). The Daubervilles dated it to 1905;
however, the organizers of Bonnard's 1984-85 exhibition in Zurich
seem to be right in dating it to 1 9 1 0. Except for Early Spring and a larger
panel also called The Fauns, this is the only painting by Bonnard which
depict Dionysian characters. Early Spring was preceded by the small-
scale companion panels Mother and Child and Father and Daughter
(Lambert collection, Brussels), each depicting two figures against a
landscape. The figure motifs of these panels were to be merged into the
characters of the Hermitage composition, with the pipe-playing faun
shown in the same pose as the mother in the Brussels panel, although
originally this pose was struck by the figure of the father. Early Spring
was also preceded by Thoughts or Early Spring (1908, Phillips
Collection, Washington), where the painter presented with a few minor
alterations the same landscape he had seen in Vernouillet. Part of this
landscape background also recurs in The Storm (1908, Private
Collection, Switzerland), with two children running from the storm.
This subject was employed in quite a few Salon paintings in the last
quarter of the nineteenth century. Bonnard’s substitution of
mythological characters for the realistic figures in the 1908 canvas
yielded a result unprecedented in the artist’s earlier work and recurring
only once, if less conspicuously, in the painting The Fauns. The fauns
and nymphs in his previous works were usually depicted against the
background of an imaginary landscape, devoid of human presence; but
placing the fauns in the real Vernouillet landscape with its recognizable
architectural landmarks created a quite unexpected counterpoint.
According to Felix Feneon, who ran the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery,
Ivan Morozov dated Early Spring to 1903-04, and Charles Terrasse, the
artist’s nephew, to the 1910s; the Daubervilles are undoubtedly right in
thinking that the Hermitage picture was painted in 1909. In 1904
Bonnard visited Vernouillet, though not in spring. Besides, the style of
Early Spring differs from other pictures of that period. Bonnard’s
sojourn at Vernouillet in the spring of 1909 was very fruitful. Rainy
Landscape (Art Museum of the Ateneum, Helsinki), a picture painted,
among many others, during his stay there, reproduces in part the
landscape of Early Spring. The Helsinki painting was dated by Bonnard
himself to 1 909, which also supports the dating of the Hermitage canvas
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Early Spring, 1908. Oil on canvas, 87.6 x 132.1 cm. The Phillips Collection. Washington, DC.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Sunny Landscape, village in the background, 1923. Oil on cardboard, 32.7 x 41 cm. Private Collection.
Train and Fishing Boats
Le Train et les chalands
Oil on canvas. 77 x 108 cm
Hermitage, St Petersburg
Under the title Train and Fishing Boats this picture was first
exhibited at Bonnard’s one-man show at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in
1910. However, Ivan Morozov, who purchased it from the exhibition,
entered it in his manuscript catalogue as Landscape with a Goods Train,
the title by which this painting has traditionally been known in Russia.
When talking to Ivan Morozov, a representative of the Bernheim-Jeune
Gallery gave the year it was painted as 1 909. This date is to be found on
the bar of the sub-frame. The painting depicts the countryside near
Vernouillet, a small town on the Seine not far from Paris which is
remarkable for its eighth-century church, a superb example of Roman
architecture. Bonnard, however, ignored the local sights (he stayed there
in the spring of 1907, 1909 and later). What appealed to him was the
scenery lying outside the town. The motifs of the Vernouillet
countryside are usually associated with springtime, e.g. Early Spring
(1908, Phillips Collection, Washington) and a further development of
the same theme, Early Spring. Little Fauns ( 1 909, Hermitage). These two
paintings are the most important Vernouillet landscapes. Train and
Fishing Boats is probably the third, depicting as it does late spring.
Bonnard often links the theme of spring with images of children. This
painting has a little girl in the bottom left-hand corner. She is deliber-
ately out of focus: the figure becomes noticeable only if the painting is
studied closely, but this detail strikes a significant note in the mood of
the picture, adding to its air of ease. By placing the girl in the
foreground the artist seems to have been waiting for the train to appear
from behind the hill, in order to obtain an effect which is both humorous
and deliberate, determined by the inherent structure of the composition,
with the objects — the train, fishing boats and girl — all moving in the
same direction, prompting a comparison.
During the Bonnard exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in
March 1910, this picture was noticed by Guillaume Apollinaire, who
wrote: “Among the landscapes, there are some works that are powerful
and devoid of brutality, such as Le Train et les chalands , whose effect is
at once very strong and very light”.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Tugboat at Vernon, c. 1929. Oil on canvas, 56 x 60 cm, Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Cottages at Cannet , 1933. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Private Collection.
The Seine near Vernon
La Seine pres de Vernon
Oil on canvas (relined). 41.5 x 52 cm
Hermitage, St Petersburg
The catalogue raisonne of Bonnard’s painting compiled by Jean and
Henri Dauberville dates the picture to about 1906. The compilers make
no mention of any other work in the same vein dating from that period.
Yet it seems natural to include the Hermitage landscape with a group
of later paintings united by a common compositional arrangement.
Anna Barskaya linked the picture with the views of the Seine painted
in 1910 and 1911. The artist discovered these views in the vicinity of
“Ma Roulotte”, a small villa he rented in 1910 and 1911 and bought the
following year. It was located in Vernonnet, a village near both Vernon
and Giverny. It would seem more accurate to date the Hermitage
picture to 1911, by analogy with The Seine in Vernon (Hahnloser
collection, Bern) and, particularly, with View of the Seine in May. All
three depict the same scenery, while the Hermitage picture is the same
size as View of the Seine in May. Bonnard would turn to this subject mat-
ter more than once in the years to come. Barskaya suggested that View
of the Seine shown at the “A Hundred Years of French Painting”
exhibition in St Petersburg in 1912 was in fact The Seine near Vernon.
This hypothesis cannot be refuted any more than it can be proved. The
dimensions of the picture are not given in the catalogue of that
exhibition. View of the Seine once belonged to Haasen. The greater part
of his collection remained in Petrograd, but some pictures, including
those displayed at the “A Hundred Years of French Painting”
exhibition, disappeared from view. The owner might have taken them
out of the country when he emigrated.
The Seine at Vernonnet
La Seine a Vernonnet
Oil on canvas. 51 x 60.5 cm
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
This painting is also known as The Seine by Vernon. Vernonnet is a
town on the Seine downstream from Paris not far from Vernon, between
Normandy and the lle-de-France. Bonnard began working there in
1910, when he produced The Clouds or The Seine near Vernonnet (Paul
Vallotton Gallery, Lausanne) and Spring Landscape. In the latter we can
recognize the high river bank featured in the Moscow painting. The
Daubervilles dated The Seine at Vernonnet to 1910-11; the Bernheim-
Jeune label on the back seems to indicate more precisely 1911, the
dating accepted in the Pushkin Museum. We know that in 1911 Bonnard
worked at Vernonnet in May and June, while in 1910 he was there in
March. This fact would tend to tip the balance in favour of the earlier
date since the view is clearly one of early, rather than late, spring. The
date on the label may have been a mistake since it was only attached to
the painting when it entered the gallery, which was apparently in 1912.
Vernonnet has no natural or man-made sights to distinguish it, but
Bonnard was very fond of the place and for the following year he
acquired a small estate called “Ma Roulotte” there. In the Moscow
painting too, the landscape at Vernonnet appears fairly unprepossessing.
The trees, which have still not turned green, almost merge with the
sandy slopes, while the smooth greyish-blue sky blends with the
greyish-blue surface of the Seine. The only striking detail is the boat by
the bank, providing a slight contrast of colour without which this very
subtly painted work would become monotonous. The artist turned fairly
late to views of the Seine, which is surprising if we recall his strong ties
to Impressionism — after all, working on the Seine was an important
element in the development of the Impressionists’ art. Probably one of
the earliest paintings featuring the Seine is Regatta (c. 1896), followed
a few years later by Bridge in Paris (Brody Collection, Los Angeles).
But in both cases the river only provides a background for the scene
depicted. In short, while Bonnard lived in Paris he was far more
attracted to the streets and squares of the city, and it was only when he
settled first in Vernonnet, then in Vernonnet, that he really discovered
the attractions of the Seine.
Morning in Paris
Le Matin a Paris
Oil on canvas. 76.5 x 122 cm
Hermitage, St Petersburg
The theme of Paris streets, introduced by the Impressionists, had been
interpreted in a wide range of ways by the early twentieth century: from
the fleeting glimpses found in the works of the older Impressionists —
Monet, Renoir and Pissarro — to the dry but amusing genre scenes of
Forain. Among Bonnard’s predecessors as a painter of Parisian scenes in
general and these two companion canvases in particular, we can single out
Gustave Caillebotte, who produced a monumental work A Paris Street in
the Rain (1877, Art Institute of Chicago), and Jules Adler with his picture
The Tired Ones (1897, Musee Calvet, Avignon), which attracted attention
at the Salon exhibitions in the late 1890s. In A Paris Street Caillebotte,
who had exhibited with the Impressionists, was preoccupied with
dynamic possibilities of perspective and the precise rendition of detail.
This let him to depart from the fleeting impression and, in essence, to
overstep the bounds of Impressionism. Adler was still further removed
from that movement, as his paintings were socially committed and almost
photo-realistic. While using compositional devices similar to those
employed by these two artists, Bonnard, nonetheless, entered into a
dispute with them, since he insisted on adherence to pictorial, even
decorative, qualities. The other Nabis were moving in the same direction,
especially Street in Paris ( 1 895, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
which features motifs close to Morning in Paris.
In January 1910, Bonnard was commissioned by Ivan Morozov,
through the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, to paint “two pictures based on
Paris life”, 2,500 francs apiece, the painter having the freedom to
choose the subjects. The receipt from the Bernheim-Jeune company
representative is in the archives of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts,
Moscow. The two pictures were entered by Morozov in his handwritten
catalogue as Morning and Evening. They were painted in 1911 and sent
to Moscow the following year.
The two-piece set depicts a district which the artist repeatedly
painted between 1893 and 1912. It was here, in the neighbourhood of
the Boulevard de Clichy and the Boulevard des Batignolles, that his
studio was located (in 1893, he rented a small studio at no. 65 Rue de
Douai, and moved to no. 60 in 1907). The subjects of the pair go back
as far as the earliest pieces produced in the studio in the Rue de Douai,
On the Boulevard (1893) and People in the Street (c. 1894). In 1899,
Vollard published a 12-piece series of colour lithographs by Bonnard
Some Aspects of Paris Life, which also played a role in establishing the
genre and iconographic features of the future Moscow works. A Street
Corner, one of this series, undoubtedly contains motifs that were later
to appear in Morning in Paris : children, women, a small dog and a cart.
From that time onwards, motifs seen in the Hermitage composition
repeatedly cropped up in other pictures. For instance, Place Clichy
(1895; D 90) features young women coming towards the viewer, and
they are again placed in the bottom left-hand corner. A still greater
similarity can be found in Place Clichy or The Green Tram (1906, Nathan
Collection, Zurich) which has girls and a pedlar carrying his tray in the
foreground, and dogs and children in the centre.
A fragment of the Morning in Paris background can readily be
recognized in another 1911 painting, Fog on the Boulevard des
Batignolles. This crossroads had already featured twice in Bonnard’s
art: in 1909, when he painted The Cart or Rag-Pickers (Barnes
Foundation, Marion), and early the following year, in Rag-Pickers
(Salz Collection, New York.) A pedlar-woman with her merchandise
and a group of girls at the sides, a cart and a small boy are outlined in
such a manner that each and every one of them indicates early
morning. One last detail — the small schoolboy wrapped up in a huge
muffler and carrying a large book — brings to mind what Charles
Terrasse, the artist’s nephew, wrote in his book on Bonnard: “1 am
fond of strolling along the streets of Montmartre, where I find my
childhood; and there I find Bonnard again. The one and the other are
mixed up in my recollections... the Rue de Douai, Rue Pigalle,
Boulevard de Clichy. Most of all 1 enjoy walking along them in the
morning. I can see myself again, well wrapped-up, setting out for the
eight o’clock class at the local lycee, in the fog, through the grey
cotton-wool of Paris in winter...” (C. Terrasse, Bonnard, Paris, 1927,
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Place Clichy or The Green Tram , 1906. Oil on canvas, 121 x 150 cm, Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Place Clichy or The Two Elegant Ladies, 1905. Oil on cardboard, 73 x 62 cm, Private Collection.
Evening in Paris
Oil on canvas. 76 x 121 cm
Hermitage, St Petersburg
Part of a set, rather than a diptych, Evening in Paris, like Morning in
Paris, is a painting in its own right. Indeed the pair have at times been
exhibited separately. But it is only when they are placed alongside each
other that they display their merits to the full.
Although Evening lacks the spatial depth of Morning and shows quite
another scene, there is little doubt that it was conceived as a companion
piece, something which is borne out, above all, by the similar
arrangement of details in the foreground. The counterpart of the elderly
pedlar on the right-hand side of Morning is the old flower-seller in
Evening, and the oncoming girls are matched here by the figures of
children. Another thing that unites the two canvases is the movement
across the surface of each. The idea of painting two pictures instead of
one, showing aspects of daily life in the Paris streets and linked by the
traditional concept of the changing times of the day, was not
coincidental. It was rooted in Bonnard’s previous work and was sug-
gested by his place of residence. The Rue de Douai leads almost to the
Place Clichy, where the Boulevard de Clichy and the Boulevard des
Batignolles meet. Even in Bonnard’s day this was a very busy junction.
During the late 1890s and early 1900s, Bonnard took a keen interest in
depicting the bustle of the streets, constant movement that varied
depending on whether it was morning, afternoon or night. He remained
attached to the idea of a many-piece series, which could render more
impressions than a single canvas. In 1896 and 1900, he painted two
triptychs depicting the Place Clichy. The first is known as The Ages of
Life. It gave him an opportunity to compare the different stages of a
man’s lifespan. This approach was retained in the Morozov set, with
each picture portraying people of three ages.
A group of paintings from 1895 can be regarded as the starting
point for Evening in Paris. They include a small-scale canvas Fiacre
or The Boulevard des Batignolles, now in the National Gallery,
Washington (with a tentative comment that it might depict the
Boulevard de Clichy rather than the Boulevard des Batignolles),
which has a background bearing a strong resemblance to that of the
Hermitage picture, and also three lithographs from the Some Aspects
of the Paris Life series (Boulevard, Square in the Evening, Evening
Street in the Rain). These lithographs, and hence Evening in Paris too,
contain reminders that Bonnard as the “Nipponised Nabi” drew
inspiration from Japanese sources: the frieze-like composition is akin
to Kiyonaga’s techniques, while the evening street itself resembles
Hiroshige’s colour woodcut Saruwaka Quarter at Night from A
Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856) or the tenth sheet of his series
69 Views of Kisokaido (1837-42).
Especially important among those of Bonnard’s earlier works which
paved the way for Evening in Paris is Flower-Seller (c. 1905), depicting
an old woman with a cart of flowers and two girls on the right.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Place Clichy, 1912. Oil on canvas, 139 x 205 cm, Musee des Beaux-Arts et d’Archeologie, Besangon.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Flower-Seller, 1905. oil on canvas, 105 x 117 cm, Private Collection.
Left-hand part. Oil on canvas (relined). 407 x 152 cm
Central part. Oil on canvas (relined). 407 x 152 cm
Right-hand part. Oil on canvas (relined). 407 x 149 cm
Hermitage, St Petersburg
This triptych was commissioned by Ivan Morozov through the
Bernheim-Jeune Gallery for 25,000 francs and was intended for the
staircase of his house in Prechistenka Street, Moscow, now the
premises of the Academy of Arts. Morozov sent the artist a photograph
of the staircase and gave its dimensions. The parts of the triptych were
to be divided by semi-columns, a fact Bonnard bore in mind when
planning the whole composition. The triptych was exhibited at the
1911 Salon d’Automne under the title Mediterranean. Panels between
Columns. The next year Morozov commissioned Bonnard to paint
another two large-scale panels to go with the triptych: Early Spring in
the Countryside and Autumn. Fruit-Picking. The main subjects of the
triptych can be traced back to Bonnard’s early period. He was depicting
women and children in gardens as early as the 1890s: The Champs-
Elysees ( c . 1 894), The Terrasse Children Playing in the Garden (c. 1 899),
etc. One work worthy of special mention is his polyptych Women in the
Garden (1890-91, Kunsthaus, Zurich). One of the four decorative
panels of this set, that of a woman with a cat, is the forerunner of the
left-hand part of the Hermitage triptych, depicting a lady with a white
cat. The group of figures in the central part — children playing in a
lively way — is typical of Bonnard, yet there are no direct counterparts
to the figures of the Hermitage triptych. By contrast, the woman with
a parrot in the right-hand part is a rare type of character which had
previously occurred only once, in Woman with a Parrot (1910). Both
that work and the present one seem to feature the same model, while
the exotic bird, like the blue sea and the abundance of luxuriant
vegetation, is intended as a reminder of the South. Bonnard’s early
decorative works, such as Women in the Garden and even The Terrasse
Family in the Garden (1896, Nationalgalerie, Berlin), follow Japanese
principles of compositional arrangement. Later on, when painting
large-scale decorative panels for Misia Serfs dining room (1906-10),
he drew on the design of Baroque tapestries (hence, among other
things, the magnificent borders) and theatre curtains. Bonnard would
turn his mind to the art of old French and Flemish tapestry-makers and
their treatment of the luxuriant tree-tops when he set to work on the
Morozov triptych, but he never yielded to the temptation of stylisation.
The panels for Misia Sert are splendidly painted, but confused in
content. In a compact space we find images from Antiquity and
contemporary life, from East and West. In this triptych Bonnard
happily avoided the heterogeneity of subjects by using a simple and
realistic motif. Bonnard found this motif in Saint-Tropez, where he
stayed in June 1909 on a visit to Manguin at the Villa Demiere. It was
at that time that he painted View of Saint-Tropez (Private Collection),
from which the central part of the triptych derives. The tree in the
middle and the tiled roofs behind it were already depicted in this study;
however, Bonnard altered the composition when he went on to paint
the large-scale panel. View of Saint-Tropez looks somewhat cramped,
while in the triptych the artist avoided this by changing the viewpoint
and eliminating a number of details. The general tone also changed,
taking on a light, ethereal quality. Bonnard is unlikely to have had View
of Saint -Tropez before his eyes when he was working on the triptych,
as it was sold to the Bernheims in 1910.
In September 1910 Bonnard revisited Saint-Tropez, this time at the
invitation of Paul Simon. In a letter to his mother he wrote that the
South had struck him like a scene from the Arabian Nights. His
impressions from this short trip undoubtedly produced the triptych,
which is set in autumn and not in spring. In the same letter he mentioned
that during a visit to Simon’s neighbours he saw a dark-haired girl with
a large blue parrot; he went on to say that he had become aware of the
shingle, the low walls, the olive trees and the oaks. Perhaps that is why
the upper part of the right-hand panel is occupied by an oak tree, and the
tower part by a girl with a parrot. The parrot is not blue, however, as it
was in Bonnard’s recollections and in his original depiction in Woman
with a Parrot, but green; the change of colour was determined by the
pictorial requirements of the composition.
There are a number of landscapes painted in Saint-Tropez in 1910
and in March 1911, when Bonnard visited it again. Among them only
The Palm (1910) is close to View of Saint-Tropez and, consequently, to
the central panel of the triptych. The triptych was finished by May 1911
— at any rate, it was shown at Bonnard’s exhibition in the Bernheim-
Jeune Gallery which opened on 17 May. After being displayed again at
the Salon d’Automne, the triptych was sent to Moscow in November
1911. The canvases were pasted directly onto the walls between the
columns on the first floor above the grand staircase, with their upper
comers trimmed to fit the shape of the capitals on the columns.
In 1948, after the triptych was transferred to the Hermitage, the
missing areas were restored, the canvases relined and placed on
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Woman with Parrot, 1910. Oil on canvas, 104 x 122 cm. Private Collection.
* 5 >
♦ Pierre Bonnard, View of Saint-Tropez or The Alley, 1909. Oil on canvas, 53.5 x 63 cm, Private Collection.
Early Spring in the Countryside
Premiers jours de printemps a la campagne
Oil on canvas. 365 x 347 cm
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
When in 1912 Ivan Morozov commissioned from Bonnard two
additional panels to go with Mediterranean, the artist, without deviating
from the decorative-monumental chord he had already struck, produced
works which both harmonise with the triptych and contrast with it. The
main elements uniting the series were the extensive areas of colour
formed by the crowns of trees treated in a generalising manner. Yet, for
all the similarity, one can sense that the trees in the new panels belong
to a different, non-Mediterranean environment. Representing the North,
in contrast to the South in the triptych, they turned out relatively dark,
and when they were placed in the stairwell of Morozov’s mansion, they
appeared darker still. Early Spring in the Countryside was on the left-
hand side of the stairs. Visitors entering the house immediately noticed
the radiant triptych, and only later turned their gaze to this “vernal”
panel. Together with its autumnal pendant, this canvas was allocated a
“supporting role”, and for that reason, even if for no other, Bonnard
certainly had no intention of creating works in exactly the same spirit as
the triptych. The dramaturgy of the suite as a whole now became more
complex, taking account of the different way its various parts would be
perceived as a person climbed the stairs. One is inevitably prompted to
make comparisons between this suite and the ensemble which Matisse
produced, also without ever visiting Moscow, for Sergei Shchukin.
There is justification for such comparisons since Shchukin
commissioned Music and The Dance in response to The Legend of Psyche
series which Denis created for Morozov. After the stir which Matisse’s
works aroused in Moscow, the ball was again in Morozov’s court, and
he chose Bonnard to play it for him. Matisse began with The Dance so
that the movement of the dancing figures and the general energy of the
composition would draw visitors upstairs. The second act was provided
by Music with a majestic sense of calm. Bonnard could not be expected
to come up with dynamics in the manner of Matisse, but the spectacle
he “put on” in Morozov’s mansion (without ever having been there) has
in some ways a similar sort of logic to it. Mediterranean was also
intended to lure people up to the first landing, although not as
imperiously as Matisse’s Dance, using the attractive power of light, the
calm pale blue of the sea and the luxuriant southern trees. Once on the
landing, the visitor would turn to the flanking panel and find himself
transported spiritually to a world of a different kind, ruled by a different,
northern light, where the very spatial environment seems to be
“shifting”. While Mediterranean is marked by strict proportionality,
with the trunk of a tree in the central part which forms the axis of the
triptych and the horizon which lies almost in the middle, in the flanking
panels Bonnard followed the principle of old tapestries: he removed the
line of the horizon above the edge of the canvas, heaving the surface of
the Earth up towards the viewer, as it were, making it almost identical
with the surface of the painting. This panel is woven from motifs
deliberately shunned by “progressive” art at the beginning of the
century — be it children’s frolics, a love scene or a young woman’s
daydreams. Motifs of that kind were the stuff of cheap prints or, at the
other extreme, of academic and salon compositions. Bonnard, however,
had no qualms about using such material. He had no fear of hackneyed
cliches, since an ironic intonation always came to his aid.
The work which we should in all probability consider the first
attempt at developing a composition of this type is the triptych The
Public Garden (c. 1897, present whereabouts unknown), which
remained at the sketch stage, but already contained the “plot” of the
work done for Morozov with the dense crowns of trees in the
background, children playing and adults relaxing in the foreground.
The impetus had clearly come from Vuillard, who had begun depicting
parks with people relaxing in them considerably earlier. In particular,
Bonnard was quite familiar with Vuillard’s Park (1894, Jaffe
Collection, New York) which then belonged to Thadee Natanson, and
with his series of nine decorative panels, collectively known as Public
Gardens, which were painted for Alexandre Natanson, also in 1894,
and are now scattered among a number of Private Collections. Taking
up the motif which Vuillard had used many times, from the outset
Bonnard treated it in a freer and more picturesque manner and, what is
particularly striking, introduced more humour. With the painting In the
Garden at Grand-Lemps (1898), by moving the location from Paris to
his native Dauphine, he took one more step towards the manner of
painting which would eventually produce Spring and Autumn for
Morozov. About that time, at Grand-Lemps, Bonnard took several
photographs of his sister’s children, of whom he was very fond. He
liked to depict them in his works and often did so; indeed some of the
photographs taken in 1897-99 were subsequently used when he was
painting Early Spring in the Countryside. Most probably Bonnard had
Grand-Lemps in his mind when he was creating his panel in Paris for
the Moscow mansion. “The house at Grand-Lemps was brought to life
by Claude Terrasse’s children,” Antoine Terrasse recollected.
“Bonnard, who always came back there in summer, watched all their
games, the hoop races, the donkey rides, petting the basset hound or the
cats, bathing in the garden pool. He shared in all their joys, all their
activities, catching their comic charms, their gestures, gracious and
clumsy, and prolonged his amusement in the studio which his mother
had organised for him on the second floor of the house.” (A. Terrasse,
Pierre Bonnard, Paris, 1967, p. 52) The panel was preceded by a small
(70 x 64.5 cm) study which is now in a private Pails collection. The
proportions of that work are slightly different, somewhat stretched in
the vertical direction. The study is less detailed and some of the
elements are presented differently in it. In the panel some things have
been changed, particularly the reclining woman and the girl reaching
out for the flower in the foreground who have traded places. Bonnard
probably wanted to separate the world of childhood from that of the
adults, and it is no coincidence that the resting woman, who seems to
be daydreaming, is placed close to the pair of lovers behind the tree to
the right. There are more children and their movement is stressed
considerably more. This emphasis on the children’s gesticulation is in
part a recognizable desire to celebrate their boisterous indefatigability,
but in part also a reflection of the influence of Japanese woodcuts,
which quite often depicted jerky poses in motion less familiar to
European eyes. In the panel, the dark strip of water, which serves as a
base for the whole landscape, was adorned with a swan in addition to
the existing ducks — a detail which serves as a beginning and module
for the painting.
When exhibited at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery the painting was
simply entitled Spring. The longer title became attached to the work
after it was installed in Morozov’s mansion.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Family in the Garden, c. 1901. Oil on canvas, 109.5 x 127.5 cm, Kunsthaus, Zurich.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Cannet Landscape, 1946. Oil on canvas, Private Collection.
L ’Automne. La Cueillette des fruits
Oil on canvas. 365 x 347 cm
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
This painting completed the decorative group on the staircase of
Morozov’s mansion. As visitors climbed the stairs, the whole of the
painting became visible.
In composition the panel is highly Impressionistic. It is a slice of
nature which the artist’s gaze apparently seized on by chance, without
thinking of the principles of construction required for monumental
works. Here Bonnard’s Impressionism, which expresses itself in the
depiction of nature, is coupled with a variety of different features
indicative of an accomplished master teasingly concealing his great
artistic skill behind a seemingly unprepossessing view. As in Early
Spring, Bonnard, without stylising the work “a la japonnaise", recalls
the lessons of Japanese art. The foreground characters, for example, are
reminiscent of woodcuts by Yoshitora, a mid-nineteenth century artist.
The composition itself is flat and unfolds or develops from bottom to
top, like the tree depicted in it, which again evokes associations with
oriental painting. The use of this device is perhaps more justified here
than in Early Spring. The huge tree occupies so much space and seems
ready to dislodge everything else, but it cannot be regarded simply as a
background. It is the chief character of this unusual work of art. The tree
with people apparently attached to it may call to mind old depictions of
the Tree of Jesse, although it is hardly likely that Bonnard had that idea
consciously in mind. Undoubtedly, though, in Autumn the tree is
perceived as a mighty symbol of nature. More than the other parts of the
monumental decorative ensemble, Autumn is a thematic work in the
“four seasons” tradition in which the different times of year are
represented by scenes of work appropriate to them. On the left an
elderly peasant is picking grapes; in the middle below is a young girl
with a basket of grapes. When Bonnard exhibited the painting in the
Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in 1913, it was given the double title Autumn.
The Grape-Harvest. The very nature of the task here — to paint a panel
directly or indirectly presuming the use of the calendar canons, in order
to then practically disregard those canons — is a paradox quite typical
of Bonnard. Puvis de Chavannes was the last major artist to treat the
theme of seasonal agricultural labours in a traditional manner. Bonnard
was undoubtedly familiar with his panel Autumn (1863-64, Musee des
Beaux-Arts, Lyons). The woman stretching out to pick fruit in the right-
hand part of Bonnard’s Autumn comes across almost as a parody on
Puvis de Chavannes’s fruit-pickers. But in Bonnard’s work, in contrast
to his predecessor’s, the human being is never presented in an idealized
or heroic manner, and therefore the motif of labour may quite naturally
dissolve into the landscape. The grape-pickers and other human figures
tend not to be noticed immediately, as one’s attention is caught by the
spreading crown of the immense willow which stands out tremendously
against the dark background. Like Early Spring, the panel Autumn per-
petuates memories of Grand-Lemps, Bonnard’s mother’s country estate.
We can assume that somewhere in that area there was a great willow
which had stuck in the artist’s memory since childhood, but the painting
was of course a work of the imagination and not painted from nature.
The banal scene of grape-picking was transformed into a composition
so decorative that it puts one in mind of a theatre curtain.
The desire to paint a decorative panel on the theme of fruit-picking
appeared as far back as 1899 and was generated by a stay at Grand-
Lemps. At that time he produced two canvases entitled Apple-Picking
and another depicting Plum-Picking. Neither in their artistic merits nor
in their scale are those earlier works comparable with the Autumn
produced for Morozov, after which the artist never again returned to the
harvesting theme. The painting in the Pushkin Museum was preceded
by a sketch (1912, 72 x 68 cm, Maeght Gallery, Paris). The very title of
this sketch, Landscape with Three Figures and a Willow, indicates that
originally Bonnard was thinking of a pure landscape composition which
lacked the figures on the left and in the centre and also the donkey-cart
in the depth of the picture.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Grand-Lemps, autumn , 1894. Oil on canvas, 22 x 27 cm, Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Autumn Morning or The Grand View of Vernon, 1922. Oil on canvas, 106 x 129 cm, Collection of Mrs. Alex Lewyt.
Summer. The Dance
L Ete. La Danse
Oil on canvas. 202 x 254 cm
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
In the early twentieth century, dance was a theme that attracted a
great many avant-garde artists, from Edvard Munch to Derain, Picasso
and Matisse. It also inspired Bonnard’s friends in the Nabi group,
particularly Denis and Roussel. Like them, Bonnard turned to this motif
without any intention of making it an instrument of radical format
innovation as was the case with Picasso (Dance of the Veils, 1907,
Hermitage) or Matisse ( The Dance, 1910, Hermitage). In Bonnard’s
painting dance is not invested with symbolic functions. The motif of
dancing has a subsidiary significance; at any rate, the painting was not
designed around it. The figures here are entirely subordinated to the
landscape. Their outlines echo the eccentric contours of the trees so
strongly that at first glance one might take them for elements in the
landscape, the more so since the patches of colour used to designate
them are very close to the shades playing in the crowns of the trees or
in the valley spreading out below.
An exception was made only for the woman in the black dress who
is carefully supporting a small girl. This woman, the pivotal figure for
the whole compositions, is Marthe Bonnard. She and the artist were
inseparable; she accompanied him on his travels. The year before, when
he spent three extended periods working at Saint-Tropez, he painted
several portraits of Marthe against the background of the sea or the lush
coastal greenery. In Summer Marthe appears as a character in a genre
composition, playing a role she never had in real life — that of a mother
with young children. In late spring 1912, Bonnard went to Grasse where
he began this large painting. He finished it after his return to Paris at the
beginning of June, in time to include it in the exhibition of his latest
works which opened in the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery on the 1 7th of that
month. His stay in Grasse was a relatively short, but exceptionally
productive one: the artist brought back from the south no less than ten
paintings, the most important of which was the Moscow Spring.
The second most significant work created in Grasse was Terrace
(1912, location unknown), which presents in detail that part of the
estate in Grasse with the balustrade which appears on the right in
Summer. Bonnard, who was very fond of animals, did not resist the
temptation to include the cats which featured in Terrace in the
Moscow painting as well. The valley fringed with mountains near
Grasse shown in the upper part of Summer is also depicted in Mountain
Landscape or Landscape at Grasse (1912, Private Collection). The
Moscow painting was evidently also preceded by Landscape with
Goats or Olive Grove (1912, Museum Folkwang, Essen) with
peacefully grazing animals and a sitting herdsman. In Summer these
characters behave more actively: the goats are picking at a bush, while
the herdsman plays a pipe, to the tune of which the girls are dancing.
This last motif, which has given the painting its second title, was not,
of course, Bonnard’s invention. It was used by other artists belonging
to the Nabi circle: Maurice Denis in Shepherds and Roussel in The
Triumph of Bacchus.
Some of the works painted in Grasse vividly captured the
impressions Bonnard gained on strolls in the vicinity of the town. Such
canvases include, among others, Rural Scene or Corner of a Village
(1912, Dial Collection, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts), which
is not a study for Summer, but one of the works which prepared the way
for it. For the background of his composition, Bonnard chose the
grounds of the Villa Antoinette near Grasse, which is where he himself
lived. In so choosing, he did not restrict himself to reproducing a single
impression as a true Impressionist would have done, but composed
Summer out of several happy occasions during his stay. The other Nabis
also composed their idylls in a similar manner, albeit with less striking
In his work on the Moscow painting Bonnard developed the theme
of the large panel with the same title which he had created three years
earlier ( Summer, 1909, Maeght Foundation, Saint-Paul-de-Vence).
Although the later work is smaller in size, it is marked by a far greater
feeling of space. Summer in the Pushkin Museum is remarkable for its
panoramic quality, a feature which became stronger precisely during
Bonnard’s stay in Grasse.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Pleasure, 1906. Oil on canvas, 250 x 300 cm. Private Collection.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace at Grasse, 1912. Oil on canvas, 125 x 134 cm, Location unknown.
Summer in Normandy
L Ete en Normandie
Oil on canvas. 114 x 128 cm
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Maurice Denis began painting women in gardens, among trees,
under the open sky, before Bonnard, but in his work such depictions had
as a rule a symbolic charge to them. Bonnard was not a devotee of the
ideological or literary message, which Denis rarely managed to avoid,
so when he became fond of painting such motifs from 1 909 onwards, he
satisfied himself with the simplest of subjects observed from nature.
This enabled him to attain a maximum of unconstrained ease and
freedom of expression. Such compositions frequently feature the artist’s
wife Marthe, alone or with a friend. Marthe is quite often accompanied
by a dog, either Ubu or Black; dogs were always a great object of
affection for her. An example is Woman Reading or Woman with a Dog
(1909). The subject of Summer in Normandy is a conversation between
the two young women depicted in the foreground, but at the same time
the landscape is not reduced to being merely the background for a genre
scene. Here the artist used a device long-established in landscape
painting — repoussoir, the darkening of the foreground — in a highly
paradoxical manner, depicting the semi-recumbent Marthe and the dog
settled at her feet in such a way that it requires some effort even to make
out the details. Marthe becomes part of a sort of inner frame which the
artist, not trusting an exterior frame to produce the desired effect,
inventively introduces in order to give depth to the space. (The other
elements of this frame are the poles of the awning and the protruding
edge of the awning above.) Since the light falls on it, the figure of
Marthe’s friend is more readily recognizable, but it too comes close to
blending into the surrounding landscape. Her green dress, slightly more
vivid in shade than the grass and trees, might even be called
camouflage, if the word is suitable for describing such an elegant piece
of clothing. The colours of her fair hair and half-shaded face are once
again close to the hues of nature. Antoine Terrasse wrote of Summer in
Normandy: “An enchanting painting with two figures, one in shade, the
other in the light of a landscape, the majestic depth of which is stressed
by its being framed in an awning. Is the shadow in the foreground a hill
or a woman’s body? One hesitates to say straightaway what it is, so
interconnected are these ripe curves. This is the puzzle posed to the
dreamer or someone who suddenly wakes up in a landscape devoured
by the sun.” (A. Terrasse, Pierre Bonnard, Paris, 1967, p. 97)
In short, Bonnard’s beloved theme — the harmony of man and
nature — which determined the contents of the large decorative
ensemble he created for Morozov, is here not simply presented, but
reproduced in the language of shapes and colours. The entire scene
takes place on the terrace of “Ma Roulotte”. Bonnard purchased this
house the same year that Summer in Normandy was painted. It was
situated in Vernonnet near Vernon, just across the Seine from Giverny
where Monet lived. The two artists visited each other quite often and
we might suppose that the proximity of the leader of the
Impressionists stimulated Bonnard in a particular manner. In any case,
Summer in Normandy is one of his most Impressionistic works, though
he never in the slightest sought to imitate the founders of that
movement. While conveying the smooth flow of air, the vibration and
play of light, which in an Impressionistic manner penetrates
everywhere, even into the dense shadows, Bonnard remains, as it
were, at the boundary which prevents his painting from becoming a
copy of nature, without ever being far away from it. The decorative
quality which was an inherent feature of Bonnard’s work is present
here too, and probably reveals itself most eloquently in the depiction
of the brickwork which the artist managed to turn into a highly
attractive, picturesque detail.
Bonnard differs also from the first-generation Impressionists in his
gentle, unimposing inclusion of a psychological aspect. The women’s
conversation was recreated by a man with a real knowledge of female
nature. On this occasion the artist avoids deliberate “Japanese”
gesticulation which would have been entirely out of place in the
presence of this enchanted and enchanting nature. The depiction of the
dogs reveals a talented painter of animals, one who understands their
psychology, and that too sets Bonnard apart from Monet, Renoir,
Pissarro and even Degas. In the foreground is Ubu, the artist’s own
beloved pet, whose presence enlivened many of his paintings and
drawings; behind is a light-coloured dog listening in an amusing way to
the women’s chat. This dog also appears in several of Bonnard’s works,
notably Garden Scene at Grand-Lemps (1912).
Ker Xavier Roussel
N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Misia with Roses, 1908. Oil on canvas, 1 14 x 146.5 cm, Private Collection.
THE N A B I S
Although Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, Roussel and Vallotton have
gone down in the history of painting as artists belonging to a single
group, their works, in spite of some common features, in fact display
more differences than similarities. They were bound together in their
youth by membership in a circle which bore a curious name — the
Nabis. Art historians, who see the Nabis’ work as a special aspect of
Post-Impressionism, have long resigned themselves to this purely
conventional label. The word “Nabis” says next to nothing about the
aims and methods of these artists, but probably on account of their very
diversity it has proved impossible to replace the label by a more
meaningful term, or at least one which fits better into the established
scheme of things. The Hermitage in St Petersburg possesses a splendid
collection of works by Bonnard and his friends. A much smaller
collection of no lesser artistic merit is housed in the Pushkin Museum
of Fine Arts in Moscow. All these works are presented in this book.
An interest in Nabi painting arose very early in Russia. Here, as
elsewhere in Europe, it emerged not among art lovers as a whole, but
among a tiny group of art collectors who were ahead of the general
public in their appreciation of new developments. Works by Bonnard,
Denis and Vallotton found their way to Moscow, and later to St
Petersburg, soon after they had been painted, some of them even being
specially commissioned. In those days the purchase by Russian
collectors of new French painting was a defiance of what was accepted
as “good taste”. In contrast to earlier times, these new connoisseurs of
painting came not from the aristocracy, but from the merchant class.
Several well-educated representatives of the new type of up-and-
coming entrepreneurs, used to relying on their own judgement, also
became highly active and independently-minded figures in the art
market. Two of them, Sergei Shchukin (1854-1937) and Ivan Morozov
(1871-1921) formed collections which at the beginning of the twentieth
century ranked among the best in the world.
The name of Shchukin is probably more widely known, and this is
not surprising: his boldness, seen by many of his contemporaries as
mere folly, soon attracted attention. He had brought the most notable
works of Henri Matisse, Andre Derain and Pablo Picasso to Moscow
before Paris had had time to recover from the shock that they caused.
Even today specialists are astonished by Shchukin’s unerring taste and
keen judgement. He proved able to appreciate Matisse and Picasso at a
time when “connoisseurs” still felt perplexed or even irritated by their
paintings. The Nabis, however, attracted Shchukin to a lesser degree,
perhaps because their work did not appear sufficiently revolutionary to
him. He acquired one picture by Vuillard and several by Denis, among
them the Portrait ofMarthe Denis, the Artist’s Wife, Martha and Mary and
The Visitation. Later another canvas was added to these, Figures in a
Springtime Landscape ( The Sacred Grove) — one of the most ambitious
and successful creations of European Symbolism. It was passed on to
Sergei Shchukin by his elder brother Piotr. But Shchukin failed to
notice Bonnard. Regarding Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin as the
key-figures in Post-Impressionism, Shchukin — and he was not alone
in this — saw the works of Bonnard and his friends as a phenomenon
of minor importance.
He did in fact make one attempt to “get into” Bonnard. In 1899, he
bought Bonnard’s painting Fiacre at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, but
later he returned it. Today it is in the National Gallery in Washington.
Shchukin used to say that a picture needed to be in his possession for
some time before he made his final decision about it, and art dealers
accepted his terms. The man who really appreciated the Nabis and
who collected their pictures over a considerable period of time was
Ivan Morozov. His taste for their work must have been cultivated by
his elder brother Mikhail, one of the first outside France to appreciate
their painting. Mikhail Morozov owned Behind the Fence, the first
work by Bonnard to find its way to Russia. He also had in his
collection Denis’s Mother and Child and The Encounter. When in 1903
Mikhail Morozov’s untimely death put an end to his activities as a
collector, his younger brother took up collecting with redoubled
energy, adding to his collection judiciously. Seeing in Bonnard and
Denis the leading figures of the Nabi group, the best exponents of its
artistic aims, he concentrated on their work. As a result, Bonnard and
Denis were as well represented in his collection as the Impressionists,
Cezanne and Gauguin.
After purchasing Denis’s picture Sacred Spring in Guidel at the Salon
des Independants in the spring of 1906, Morozov made a point of
becoming acquainted with the artist. That summer he visited Denis at
his home in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where he bought the as yet
unfinished Bacchus and Ariadne and commissioned Polyphemus as a
companion piece. In the same year or at the beginning of the next, he
placed his biggest order with Denis — The Legend of Psyche — a series
of panels for his Moscow mansion in Prechistenka Street. At Morozov’s
THE N A B I S
invitation, Denis came to Moscow to install the panels and add the
finishing touches. Relations between the patron and the artist became
firm and friendly. Morozov sought the Frenchman’s advice; at Denis’s
prompting, for example, Morozov purchased one of Cezanne’s finest
early works, Girl at the Piano. Denis introduced Morozov to Maillol.
The result of this acquaintance was a commission for four large bronze
figures which later adorned the hall containing Denis’s decorative
panels, superbly complementing them.
The second ensemble of decorative panels commissioned by
Morozov is even more remarkable when seen today. Created by
Bonnard, it comprised the triptych Mediterranean and the panels Early
Spring in the Countryside and Autumn. Fruit-Picking. At Morozov’s
suggestion Bonnard also painted the pair of works, Morning in Paris and
Evening in Paris. Together with the triptych, these rank among
Bonnard’s greatest artistic achievements.
St Petersburg had no collectors on the scale of Sergei Shchukin and
Ivan Morozov. Only Georges Haasen, who represented a Swiss
chocolate firm in the then capital of Russia, collected new French
painting. Fie was especially interested in artists like the Nabi group.
Among other works, he had in his collection Bonnard’s The Seine near
Vernon and six paintings by Vallotton (all now in the Hermitage).
Haasen knew Vallotton well: the artist stayed with him in St Petersburg
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Fiacre, 1895. Oil on wood, 30 x 40 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
THE N A B I S
and painted portraits of the businessman himself and of his wife. No
complete list of the works in Haasen’s collection has survived, but there
is enough information to indicate that it was very well put together. The
catalogue of the St Petersburg exhibition “A Hundred Years of French
Painting” held in 1912 contains a number of works by Bonnard,
Vuillard, Roussel and Vallotton from Haasen’s collection that were not
among those which entered the Hermitage in 1921.
There was one more Russian collector who showed interest in the
Nabis, Victor Golubev, but he took up residence in Paris. The two
canvases belonging to him at the 1912 St Petersburg exhibition —
Vuillard’s Autumn Landscape and Denis’s St George — were actually
sent from France. The exhibition betokened a genuine recognition of
new French art: on display were the finest works by Manet, Renoir,
Monet, Cezanne and Gauguin.
The salon idols, who still had many admirers among the public, were
represented by only a few works, while there were 24 Renoirs, 17
Cezannes and 21 Gauguins. The Nabis were, of course, represented on a
more modest but still creditable scale: six paintings by Bonnard, five
each by Roussel and Denis, four by Vuillard and two each by Vallotton
and Serusier. Their works effectively formed the final element in the
exhibition. They could no longer be regarded as the last word in French
art, but they were the latest thing considered acceptable by the organizers
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Pont du Carrousel, c. 1903. Oil on canvas, 71.4 x 100 cm, Los Angeles County Museum, gift of Mr and Mrs Sidney F. Brody.
THE N A B I S
of this diverse artistic panorama which occupied over 20 rooms in Count
Sumarokov-Elstone’s house in Liteny Prospekt. This was undoubtedly
one of the most significant art exhibitions of the early twentieth century,
not only in Russia, but in the whole of Europe. Even today one cannot
help marvelling at its scope and at the aptness in the choice of many
works. At the same time the catalogue shows its organisers’ desire to
avoid excessive radicalism. It was, after all, a purely St Petersburg affair,
a joint venture of the Apollon (Apollo) magazine and the French Institute,
which at that time was located in St Petersburg. The Institute’s director,
Louis Reau, was a prominent art historian. The great Moscow collectors
did not contribute to the exhibition, although Ivan Morozov was a
member of its honorary committee.
By that time in Moscow, where artistic life was far more turbulent
than in St Petersburg, painting of the type represented by the Nabis had
been ousted by the more audacious and striking manifestations of the
avant-garde, both Russian and foreign. Whereas at the 1908 “Golden
Fleece” exhibition, Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, Serusier and Roussel
were well represented, the following year their pictures were no longer
on show. However, the organizers of the 1909 exhibition included
works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and Braque. The “Izdebsky
Salon”, a fairly large international exhibition arranged by Vladimir
Izdebsky which in 1910 visited Odessa, Kiev, St Petersburg and Riga,
presented not only works by Matisse, Kees van Dongen, Vlaminck
Rouauft and Braque, but also by Larionov, Kandinsky, Jawlensky,
Bechtejeff, Altman and many others. In sharp contrast there were only
a few Nabi paintings. Neither Russian nor Western European art lovers
had turned their backs on the art of Bonnard and his companions, but it
had receded into the background. The opinion took root that these artists
were of minor importance, and several decades were to pass before this
myth was finally dispelled. The reason for the rise of the myth was that
the Nabis stood apart from the mainstream of the various antagonistic
movements in art, torn by strife on the eve of the First World War. But
Time, that great arbiter, has lifted the veil of obscurity from the Nabis,
once again revealing the merits of their art, and placing Bonnard among
the most brilliant colourists that France has ever produced.
The generation of Bonnard and his companions came to the fore in
artistic life at the close of the nineteenth century. Nurtured by the
colourful era known as the belle epoque, they themselves contributed
much to it. The history of nineteenth-century French art may be divided
up in different ways. If however one is guided by the most fundamental
cultural distinctions, a pattern of three periods approximately equal in
length can be drawn. The first, which began when the principles of
Classicism still reigned supreme, saw the emergence of the Romantic
movement. The second was dominated by Realism which appeared
sometimes on its own, sometimes in interaction with Romanticism and
even with a form of Classicism lapsing into Academicism. The third
♦ Maurice Denis, Martha and Mary, 1896. Oil on canvas, 77 x 116 cm,
Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
period was marked by a greatly increased complexity in the problems
tackled by the artists. Influences of earlier times could still be traced in the
various artistic styles, but only to highlight the new and unusual artistic
manifestations. The development of painting gathered an unprecedented
momentum. Its idiom became enriched by numerous discoveries.
Impressionism assumed the leading role, in spite of the hostility shown
toward it in official circles, by the general public and by most painters.
The last three decades of the nineteenth century were among the
greatest and richest in French art. They were staggering in their volcanic
creative activity. One brilliant constellation of artists was followed by
the rise of another. Younger painters rapidly caught up with their older
colleagues, competing with them. Moreover, the appearance of a
dazzling new movement in art was not followed by a lull, a pause in
development, which could have a historical justification — to give that
movement time to strengthen its influence. On the contrary, no sooner
had the roar of one gigantic wave subsided, than another came rolling
implacably behind it, and so on, wave after wave.
The main “disturber of the peace” in the 1860s was Edouard Manet.
His works caused a revolution in painting, blazing the way for a new
style — Impressionism. The 1870s were decisive years in the
Impressionists’ battle to assert their new, unbiased approach to reality,
their right to use bright pure colours, wholly appropriate to the
wonderful freshness of their perception of the world. The 1880s were
marked by more developments. Proceeding from the discoveries of
Monet and his fellow Impressionists, Seurat and Signac on the one
hand, and Gauguin on the other, mapped out entirely new directions in
♦ Maurice Denis, Polyphemus , 1907. Oil on canvas, 81 x 116 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
THE N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Breakfast Room in the Country, 1934-1935. Oil on canvas, 127 x 135 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.
THE N A B I S
painting. The views of these artists were completely different. The
“scholarly” approach of the first two Neo-Impressionists ran counter to
the views of Gauguin and the Pont-Aven group of which he was the
leader. These artists owed a great deal to medieval art. Meanwhile
Vincent van Gogh, who had by that time moved from Holland to
France, led the way in another direction: his main concern was to
express his inner feelings. All these artists had moved a good distance
away from Impressionism, yet each owed a great deal to the revolution
that Manet had brought on. When Seurat and Gauguin exhibited their
pictures at the last exhibition of the Impressionists held in 1886, their
divergence was already clearly marked. Naturally, among the
“apostates” one ought to name the two contemporaries of the
Impressionists — Redon, and, above all, Cezanne, who from the start
recognized not only the enormous merits of Impressionist painting, but
also saw traits in it which threatened to lead to shallowness and to the
rejection of the eternal truths of art.
Soon a new term — Post-Impressionism — made its appearance. It
was not a very eloquent label, but it came to be widely used. The
vagueness of the label was not accidental. Some of the French artists
who were initially inspired by the Impressionistic view of the world
later left Impressionism behind, each pursuing his own path. This gave
rise to an unprecedented stylistic diversity which reached its peak
between the late 1880s and the beginning of the twentieth century. No
name could possibly be adequate in this situation.
Even from anti-academic points of view. Impressionism could seem
narrow and insufficient as a means of artistic expression, yet it still
remained a force which no artist of talent, at least in France, could
ignore. Not only Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec
came to be regarded as Post-Impressionists, but also Redon and
Cezanne, and even Matisse and Picasso. For example, in 1912 the last
two artists displayed their work at the second exhibition of Post-
Impressionists at the Grafton Gallery in London. More recently,
however, art historians have tended to limit Post-Impressionism to the
nineteenth century. The revolution brought on by the Impressionists,
and its aftermath, Post-Impressionism, became the most important force
in the development of art from the 1860s through the 1890s, and it
would probably be no exaggeration to say that it influenced artistic
evolution throughout the twentieth century.
Any really creative artist living in Paris who embarked on his career
in the late 1880s, when Impressionism was drawing to its close, was
almost inevitably “doomed” to become a Post-Impressionist. So it is
hardly surprising that a small group of artists, calling themselves the
Nabis — Bonnard, Vuillard and Denis among them — readily joined
this broad new movement which speedily gained authority among
painters outside the academic circle. With the advent of the twentieth
♦ Felix Vallotton, Landscape at Rocamadour, 1925. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, Private Collection.
THE N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Normandy Landscape, 1920-1930. Oil on canvas, 62 x 80 cm, Northampton (Mass.), Smith College Museum of Art.
THE N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Gardener, 1908. Oil on canvas, 85 x 93 cm, Private Collection.
THE N A B I S
century, when the age of Post-Impressionism was approaching its end,
these artists would be faced with the necessity of making a new choice:
either to follow the style of their youth or to rally to the banners of new,
more radical movements. But for the Nabis, the question never seriously
arose. All their background and artistic experience made them little
disposed towards Fauvism and even less towards Cubism or any other
modern style. Bonnard was a little more than two years older than
Matisse, Vuillard was even closer in age, and though they sincerely
respected Matisse as an artist, they could not share his ideas. This does
not mean that their intention was to adhere assiduously to their earlier
manner. They realised that by acting that way they would be doing no
more than marking time and consequently condemning themselves to
failure. The real alternative lay in each member of the group developing
his own artistic personality. This was bound to conflict with the
aspirations of the group as a whole and disrupt its joint efforts. The
growing individuality in each artist’s work undermined the group’s
unity. At the same time, this process clarified the position of these artists
in the art world. It showed that some of them had become figures of
European standing, while others were no more than members of a
Of course, the Nabi artists had never followed one particular style.
Each member of the group pursued his own course, regardless of the
stylistic, ideological and religious ideas of the others. In this respect the
group was unique. This is not to say that the Nabis did not have a
common artistic platform. Without it the group could hardly have
formed and existed as long as it did.
The group came into being in 1888. The event was connected with
the Academie Julian in Paris. The reader should not be misled by this
high-sounding name: the word “academie” was used in the French
capital with reference to all sorts of private studios. Among them, the
Academie Julian, founded in 1860, probably enjoyed the best
reputation. Artists attended this studio because they could find a
model there, and many prepared there for entrance examinations to the
Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The atmosphere in the studio was less formal
than at the Ecole, but the professors as authoritative; in fact, often
enough the same academic celebrities taught at the Academie and the
Ecole. The students at the studio were a very mixed bag. Shared
backgrounds, artistic temperament and talent very quickly drew them
together into groups that came apart just as easily as they were
formed. The centre of attraction was Paul Serusier. Ele was, at 25,
older than his fellow-students, the head of the class and better
educated than the rest. The painting exhibited at the 1888 Salon had
gained him an honourable mention. With his inclination to discuss
matters and his ability to express his ideas clearly and eloquently, he
easily won listeners. The main subject of Serusier’s discourses was the
experience he gained in Brittany from where he had returned in
♦ Edouard Manet, Argenteuil, 1874. Oil on canvas, 148.9 x 115 cm, Musee des Beaux Arts, Tournai.
THE N A B I S
October 1888 deeply influenced by the ideas of Synthetism. He
assumed the role of champion of “the last word” in painting passed on
to him by Gauguin at Pont-Aven.
Serusier was completely under the spell of his encounter with
Gauguin. But the most important thing was that he brought back with
him The Talisman (Musee d’Orsay, Paris). This small landscape study
hurriedly painted on a piece of board was to become a true talisman
for a small group of students at the Academie Julian. With a
sacramental air, Serusier showed the panel to Bonnard, Denis, Ibels
and Ranson. Later Vuillard and Roussel joined “the initiated”. The
study, painted in the Bois d’ Amour outside Pont-Aven, depicts
autumnal trees reflected in a pond. Each area of colour in this work is
given in such a generalized fashion that the object depicted is not
easily recognized, and, turned upside down, the picture becomes an
abstract. The study was made under the guidance of Gauguin, who
demanded: “How do you see that tree? It is green? Then choose the
most beautiful green on your palette. And that shadow? It is more like
♦ Paul Gauguin, Cafe at Arles, 1888, Oil on canvas, 72 x 92 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Sailing (The Hahnloser Family), 1924. Oil on canvas, 98 x 103 cm, Private Collection, Switzerland.
THE N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Josse Bemheim-Jeune and Gaston Bernheim de Villiers, 1920. Oil on canvas, 165.5 x 155.5 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
THE N A B I S
blue? Then don’t hesitate to paint it with the purest blue possible.” 29
The words are cited differently in different sources, but all versions
contain the same main idea: an exhortation to simplify the methods of
painting, beginning with the simplification of the artist’s palette and an
increase in its dynamism. “This is how we learned,” recollected Denis,
“that all works of art are a kind of transposition, a certain caricature, the
passionate equivalent of an experienced sensation. This was the starting
point of an evolution in which we at once became engaged.” 30
The seed had fallen upon fertile ground. Comparing The Talisman
and the works of the Impressionists and their followers seen in the
Durand-Ruel, Boussod and Valadon galleries with the popular paintings
exhibited in the Musee du Luxembourg and the works of their own
teachers, the young painters could not but fall under the spell of this new
mode of painting, with its vitality and brilliant colour.
Of course, Serusier and his attentive audience were by no means
unanimous in their interpretation of the arguments of the leader of the
Pont-Aven school. While for Serusier the simplification of colour
seemed a tempting gateway into the realm of symbols (and Denis was
ready to agree with him), Bonnard and Vuillard, who did not wish to
leave the precincts of painting as such, hoped that these devices would
help to open up promising decorative resources. Though their own
artistic experience was still rather limited, all of them were able to
appreciate the beauty of resonant colours, no matter how unorthodox
the means used to achieve them were.
It so happened that those students of the Academie Julian who dis-
played the greatest talent in painting felt drawn towards one another and
began by gathering round Serusier. Among the other students, these
young artists stood out with their superior cultural level: they were well-
read, loved poetry and the theatre. This too helped to establish close ties
between them. Soon they started meeting outside classes. Feeling that
their association had a special significance, they decided to call
themselves the Nabis. This name, a password for the group and a
mystery for outsiders, was suggested by one of their friends, Auguste
Cazalis, then a student at the School of Oriental Languages.
The meetings of the Nabis were characterised by lively
conversations on a wide range of subjects, more often than not
connected with painting or literature. It is true that Serusier and, to a
lesser extent, Denis were inclined to give themselves airs, but the rest
preferred a merry atmosphere and enjoyed a good joke. This was quite
natural: they were all young. On Saturdays they met in Ranson’s
studio, played charades (popular at the time), staged little puppet
shows, read poetry. Once a month, and this with time became a ritual,
they gathered in a small, modest restaurant called L’Os a Moelle (The
Marrowbone). Each member of the group had a nickname: Paul
♦ Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Paul Gachet, 1 890. Oil on canvas, 68 x 57 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
THE N A B I S
Serusier, for example, was called “Nabi a la barbe rutilante” (Nabi with
the sparkling beard), Denis bore the name “Nabi aux belles icones”
(Nabi of the beautiful icons), Bonnard’s nickname was “Nabi
japonard” (the Nipponised Nabi), Vuillard — “Zouave”, Verkade —
“Nabi obeliscal” (the obeliskal Nabi), and Valloton, who joined the
group in 1892, “Nabi etranger” (the foreign Nabi).
From time to time the Nabis gathered in the editorial offices of the
recently-founded magazines Mercure de France and Revue Blanche or in
Le Bare de Boutteville’s gallery, where at that time they usually
exhibited their works. But their main meeting place remained Ranson’s
studio on the Boulevard Montparnasse, which they styled the “Temple”.
The walls of the “Temple” were adorned with decorative pieces by
Denis, Vuillard, Bonnard and Roussel. They were executed on paper
and, unfortunately, have not survived. In 1891 Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis
and Lugne-Poe rented a workshop in the Rue Pigalle, which was
frequented by other members of the Nabi circle. With the coming of
spring, they spent Sundays at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in Denis’s house,
or at l’Etang-la-Ville, with Roussel’s family. Unlike the rest of the
Nabis, Ranson and these two artists had married and settled down to a
more or less steady home life. Even in summer the Nabis remained
faithful to their fellowship: Serusier, Verkade and Ballin, for instance,
visited Brittany together. In 1 895, Thadee Natanson, the publisher of the
Revue Blanche, and his charming wife Misia, whom both Renoir and
Bonnard painted many times, entertained Vuillard and Vallotton at their
home in Valvin. The following year the couple moved to Villeneuve-
sur-Yonne, where over the course of several years Bonnard, Vuillard,
Roussel and also Toulouse-Lautrec were invited to their home.
Members of the Nabi group often entertained Maillol, whom they held
in great esteem. Three or four times they were visited by Gauguin. The
“Temple” was frequented by the composers Chausson, Hermand and
Claude Terrasse (Bonnard’s brother-in-law). Denis introduced to the
Nabis his fellow-student from the Lycee Condorcet, Lugne-Poe, who
was soon to gain prominence on the French stage both as an actor and
producer. Lugne-Poe had introduced the Parisian public to Ibsen,
Strindberg and other outstanding dramatists of the time. Through him
the Nabis entered the theatrical world. They designed stage sets and
theatrical programmes for Lugne-Poe’s productions. They even
appeared on the stage as extras, taking part, for example, in the much
talked about Ubu Roi by Jarry. Members of the Nabi group were
personally acquainted and often friendly with many contemporary
French authors — Alfred Jarry, Francis Jammes, Jules Renard, Tristan
Bernard, Edouard Dujardin and Andre Gide — so it is hardly surprising
that they illustrated their books. While at the Lycee, Maurice Denis
became acquainted with Marcel Proust. He was also on close terms with
Andre Gide in whose company he travelled all over Italy. Mallarme
taught English at the Lycee Condorcet. The Nabis greatly admired his
poetry and some of them kept in touch with him after leaving the Lycee.
♦ Paul Serusier, Bretons Wrestlers, 1890. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
♦ Paul Serusier, The Talisman, 1888. Oil on canvas, 27 x 21.5 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
THE N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Breakfast by the Radiator, c. 1930. Oil on canvas, 74 x 84 cm, Private Collection.
N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Tea in the Garden, 1891. Oil, black ink and pencil on canvas, 38 x 46 cm, Private Collection.
THE N A B I S
More than half of the Nabis attended the Lycee Condorcet,
undoubtedly one of the finest in Paris and perhaps the best as far as its
humanities programme was concerned. It played an important role in
fostering a taste for literature in its students. Curiously enough, not one
of the Nabis had ever won a prize for art at the Lycee, while Vuillard
and Roussel gained the first and second prizes for history. A shared
interest in literature, history and aesthetics helped to form firm ties
between people of very different convictions. The friendship which
sprung up in their Lycee years proved stronger than the artistic and
religious differences which arose later.
Their fellowship expressed itself at times through naive and even
childish features, for example, the ritual formula, modelled on those of
ancient fraternities, with which they finished their letters: “En ta paume,
mon verbe et ma pensee” (My words and thoughts are in your palm). On
occasion these words were reduced to an abbreviation:
“E.T.P.M. V.E.M.P.” Whatever the reason, it is a fact that for many years
their friendship was never dimmed by resentment, envy or
In works on the history of art, the Nabis are at times equated with
other groups and movements which existed for a short period and then
dissolved. This conception is fraught with inconsistencies. Can the Nabi
circle be regarded as a distinct movement? Yes and no. Some common
features may be traced in their work, but the kinship between them is at
two removes if not more. It is not by chance that at some recent
exhibitions painters of this group have been ascribed to different
movements. For example, works by Denis, Serusier and even Vallotton
were included in the widely representative exhibition of European
Symbolism held in 1975-76 in Rotterdam, Brussels, Baden-Baden and
Paris, 31 while neither Bonnard, Vuillard nor Roussel were featured. It is
true that some traces of Symbolism may be found in the works of the
last three painters, but they are so rare and so faint that these artists
cannot possibly be regarded as Symbolists. However, Bonnard, Vuillard
and Roussel always paid considerable attention to the painterly aspects
of their work and so they had certain points of contact with the Fauves.
That explains why their works are now and again shown at the same
exhibition. The exhibition of the Nabis and Fauves held in the Zurich
Kunsthaus in 1983 32 may serve as an example. It is noteworthy that
paintings by Denis and Serusier were not included in this exhibition.
The Nabis were not simply a group of artists using similar painterly
devices and the same strategy in the struggle to exhibit their works, as
was the case with the Neo-Impressionists or the Fauves. They were a
kind of fraternity, hence their desire to be tolerant of each other despite
the many differences between them. It is difficult for such a fraternity,
based not on discipline but on shared aesthetic conceptions, to survive
for long. All the more surprising, then, is the fact that the group
♦ Henri-Gabriel Ibels, At the Circus, 1893. Color lithograph. Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
♦ Paul Ranson, The Tiger, 1893. Color lithograph. Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
continued to exist until 1900. Personal relations and in certain cases
family ties held the group together, though the activities of the group, or
at least of some of its members, soon might well have appeared naive
and even anachronistic.
In fact, the activities of the group were for most of the Nabis to some
extent a kind of game, one that with time lost its attraction. Differences
in temperament, in personal inclinations and outlook were sooner or later
bound to affect the relationship between the Nabis. True, they all wor-
shipped Baudelaire, Mallarme and Verlaine, they loved Gauguin,
sincerely admired such disparate artists as Cezanne and Van Gogh; they
delighted in old stained-glass windows, Breton crucifixes and popular
prints from Epinal (images d’Epinal); they were all interested in folk
legends, traditional country festivals and ancient rituals. Yet though they
shared these interests, each had his own preferences. A certain coolness
could not but exist between Serusier, an ardent Catholic, and Roussel and
who were confirmed atheists. Neither was it easy for Serusier, with his
inclination to doctrinarianism, to find a common language with Bonnard,
who would never thrust his opinions upon others. Perhaps of no lesser
importance was that whereas the former was almost devoid of a sense of
humour, the latter was endowed with a very strong one.
While admiring Gauguin and medieval art, Degas and Japanese
woodcut prints, each member of the Nabi group saw them in a different
way. Here, preference was dictated by personal convictions and taste.
These differences from the very beginning divided the group into two
parties. Serusier, Denis and Verkade wished to follow Gauguin and
drew on the art of the Middle Ages, whereas Bonnard, Vuillard and
Vallotton felt an affinity with Degas and Japanese artists. Thus the
nicknames given to Bonnard and Denis, which they readily accepted,
reflected their aesthetic inclinations. The names in each case defined the
source of their art and, ultimately, that of the two Nabi parties, one of
which gravitated towards a vivid, dynamic representation of life, the
other towards a more religious, stylized and symbolic representation.
Both wings agreed that art should not aim to copy nature. They saw it
above all as “a means of expression” 33 and recognized that there was “a
close connection between forms and emotions”. 34 The theory of
equivalences was the foundation of Nabi aesthetics. This may well
provide the explanation for the respect which each member of the
fraternity felt for the work of the others.
The fact that the Nabis regarded very different artists with equal
esteem — Gauguin and Cezanne, Redon and Puvis de Chavannes —
may be explained by their genuine respect for individuality. It is easy to
see what attracted them in Odilon Redon with his air of mystery and
subtle colour nuances, or in Puvis de Chavannes with his profound
understanding of the essence of monumental painting. The works of the
young Nabis from time to time betrayed a hint of the influence of these
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Balcony at Vernonnet, 1920. Oil on canvas, 100 x 78 cm, Musee des Beaux- Arts, Brest.
♦ Felix Vallotton, View of Cagne from horseback, Oil on canvas, 80.5 x 60 cm, M.C.B.A. Lausanne.
THE N A B I S
two artists. With Cezanne, whom they discovered very early, when his
works could be found only in a small shop kept by Le Pere Tanguy, the
question becomes more difficult. Did he influence them? Neither
Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis nor any other representative of the group can
be considered followers of Cezanne. They moved in an entirely
different direction from that taken by the vanguard Impressionist.
Cezanne’s work served them as an example of great skill. To be able to
appreciate his art in the early 1 890s, when with the exception of a few
close friends, art lovers saw his canvases as nothing but daubs, not only
proved independent judgement, but also revealed an uncommonly high
degree of painterly culture. It is thus not surprising that the writer Sar
Peladan, for example, an idol of Symbolism who was in great vogue
about 1 890, at least among a considerable section of the public, failed
to impress the Nabis, although they themselves were by no means
indifferent to Symbolism. They also remained unmoved by the English
painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, who were
much talked about in artistic circles throughout Europe.
The Nabis, particularly those who sided with Serusier, doubtlessly
shared some of the important ideas inherent in Symbolism. Since they
discussed among themselves all notable artistic events in Paris, they
were well acquainted not only with the works of Puvis de Chavannes,
Redon or Gustave Moreau (whom they rated less highly, evidently
because of his approach to colour), but also with the works of foreign
Symbolists belonging to various trends. At the Exposition Universelle
of 1889 they would naturally have seen the works of the British artists
Burne-Jones, Millais, Watts and Crane, and of the Italian Previati.
Moreover, Burne-Jones was a regular exhibitor at the Societe Nationale
des Beaux- Arts from the time of its foundation in 1890. In that year the
Salon also featured works by the Belgian artist Leon Frederic and the
German Ludwig von Hofmann; in 1891, works by the Swiss artist
Hodler and the Finn Gallen-Kallela. Foreign artists, including the
Belgians Delville, Mellery and Khnopff, and the Dutchman Toorop,
were represented in the salons of the “Rose + Croix”, arranged by
Peladan from 1892 to 1897.
The Nabis’ lukewarm reaction to these Symbolists was no
manifestation of patriotism. Rather they found their works lacking in
artistic merits. The French artists who joined the Symbolist movement
always paid special attention to the use of colour. Not only Gauguin and
Redon, whose achievements as colourists were so astonishing that that
factor alone makes it impossible to regard their work solely within the
framework of Symbolism, but also less gifted artists such as Seguin,
who was close to the Nabis, and other followers of Gauguin produced
works characterized by a more complex painterly texture, and by more
subtle and original colour harmonies. The understanding of the role of
colour evinced by the British, German and Belgian Symbolists seemed
to the Nabis narrow, or simply dull and academic.
♦ Felix Vallotton, Landscape at sunset, 1919. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Private Collection.
THE N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Cote d’Azur, c. 1923. Oil on canvas, 79 x 76 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
THE N A B I S
♦ Maurice Denis, The Muse, 1893. Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 171.5 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
♦ Maurice Denis, Homage to Cezanne, 1900. Oil on canvas, 180 x 240 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
THE N A B I S
Many aspects of non-academic art also remained alien to the Nabis
from a purely colouristic point of view. They were never tempted, for
example, to try their hand at Neo-Impressionism. The exponents of
this style aimed at achieving the utmost intensity of light, close to
reality, using the technique of separate dabs of paint and the optical
mixing of pure spectral colours. Colour for the sake of light — that
was never an issue for the Nabis, nor was the choice between colour
and light. Colour invariably remained of paramount importance for
this group of artists. Their colour schemes were most often based on
subtle, even elusive gradations of tones, and were in themselves
usually rather subdued.
The colour solutions characteristic of the Nabis may be explained by
the artists’ attitude towards what they depicted. This attitude was far
from the immediacy of the first Impressionists. While rejecting the
rapid, casual approach of Monet and Sisley, they remained faithful to
accurate visual perception. Their preference was for the eternal rather
than the transient. A painting by Bonnard, Vuillard or Denis is, of
course, correlated with the object it depicts, but not with it alone. In
their works one can always discover a number of subtle associations
which place the picture in a definite artistic and historical context.
Works by the Nabis are always decorative, and this precludes a
naturalistic interpretation of them. At the same time, this decorativeness
♦ Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1 882- 1 885. Oil on canvas, 58 x 72 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
THE N A B I S
shows that these paintings belong to an artistic system, which is
structurally close to other systems. Those other systems may be far
removed in time and space, but that fact is irrelevant to their art. In
Bonnard’s works we find parallels with Japanese prints, in Denis’s with
the murals of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.
Such a tendency to look back may at its worst have led to mere
stylization. However, Bonnard and Vuillard established fruitful links
with earlier art. It was not a matter of iconographic borrowing, though
this did take place, but rather a kind of compression of artistic
significations: a work is seen not solely as a reflection of the reality
surrounding the artist, but also in the context of a long-existing, well-
developed tradition, at times very unexpected for the artist’s
contemporaries. Denis, the chief theoretician of the group, even invented
a word to denote this phenomenon, Neotraditionalism. It is easy to see
that Denis’s art does indeed fall under this heading. The issue is more
difficult with such artists as Vuillard, but in his work too, links with
artistic traditions of the past are clearly evident. He owes a great debt to
eighteenth-century art, to Japanese woodcuts and to highly decorative
French printed cloths. These correlations reveal a very important
peculiarity of Nabi art: in comparison with the work of their immediate
forerunners, it makes especial demands of the viewer and requires a good
♦ Felix Vallotton, Outskirts of Lausanne, 1893. Oil on wood, 24 x 34 cm. Private Collection.
N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Cherry Tart, 1908. Oil on canvas, 115 x 123 cm, Private Collection, Zurich.
N A B I S
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Afternoon Landscape, 1945. Oil on canvas, 95 x 125 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum, gift of Mr and Mrs Harry Lynde Bradley.
THE N A B I S
knowledge of the history of art. An Impressionist picture is easily
understood without this, as long as the viewer knows how to look at it.
A new understanding of the aims of painting, determined by a more
complex approach to the inner meanings of the image, is one of the most
distinctive marks of Post-Impressionism. In some cases the approach
owed a great deal to the artistic systems of the East. Although oriental
art was only one source of the stylistic changes taking place at that time,
it is particularly clear that the Nabis, moving in the same direction as
Van Gogh, Gauguin, Redon, and (partly) Toulouse-Lautrec, strove, in
contrast to Impressionism, for a synthesis in art, a kind of synthesis
which was entirely new in European art. The synthetism of Gauguin and
other members of the Pont-Aven group, Redon’s experiments which
delighted Bonnard and his friends by “a unity of practically opposite
qualities, the purest matter and extremely mystic expression”, 35 the
visions of Gustave Moreau, usually deliberately theatrical — all these
artistic manifestations at the end of the nineteenth century betrayed an
antinaturalistic mood. The Nabis inevitably came to share this mood,
although their attitudes towards Redon and Moreau were various. It
influenced their art considerably and gave rise to a situation where in a
single painting vague allusions could unexpectedly be combined with
almost poster-like abstractions. Courbet and the painters of the
Barbizon school had avoided using images which could be interpreted
in different ways: in short, images outside the world of painting. For the
Nabis, on the other hand, the interplay of various styles and images of
the past, from the millefiori glass of the late Middle Ages to the colour
prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, motifs drawn from legends,
mythology and the Gospel, all formed an integral part of their art. This
tendency towards a synthesis of artistic concepts was entirely in keeping
with the revival of the idea of combining painting with other arts and
This idea was current all across Europe. It was not rejected by the
academic and salon leaders, but what they offered was the construction
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Window, 1925. Oil on canvas, 108.5 x 89 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Port of Cannes, 1927. Oil on canvas, 42 x 72 cm, The National Gallery of Canada.
N A B I S
♦ Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Poor Fisherman, 1881. Oil on canvas, 155 x 192.5 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
THE N A B I S
♦ Felix Vallotton, A Port , 1091. Oil on cardboard, 57 x 62 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
THE N A B I S
of modem works of art based on copying Renaissance and Baroque
examples, which merely led to a still-born “historicism”. The creative
young artists of Paris were concerned with something entirely different.
They dreamt of decorative and monumental painting which would
absorb all the colouristic discoveries of the previous two decades. Later
Verkade recalled: “Around 1 890 a war-cry surged through the studios:
‘We’ve had enough of easel-paintings, down with useless furniture!
Painting must not usurp a liberty which isolates it from other arts! There
are no paintings, but only decorations!” 36 What were they to be like, these
new decorations? Even beginners in painting realised that merely
copying the Old Masters would be no better than the thoughtless transfer
of the Impressionists’ brilliant colours onto walls. It was then that many
artists’ eyes turned towards Puvis de Chavannes. The seventeen-year-old
Denis wrote in his diary: “Yesterday I visited the exhibition of Puvis de
Chavannes’ works. The calm, decorative aspect of his pictures is very
beautiful: the colour of the walls is delightful, the harmonies of pale-
yellow tones are superb. The composition is astonishingly well thought
out and lofty; this suggests wonderful mastery. 1 am sure that above all it
is the composition that influences the soul gently and mysteriously, ele-
vating it and soothing.” 37 Not only Puvis de Chavannes’ murals in the
Pantheon but also his easel paintings were seen as a lesson in decorative
art. Gauguin made a copy of his Hope, and later, on Tahiti, painted two
versions of A Poor Fisherman, a work (now in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris)
which was also copied by Maillol, who was close to the Nabis. Even
many years later Anna Golubkina advising her friend and fellow artist
L. Gubina what to see in Paris in the short time at her disposal, said:
“Don’t linger in the Pantheon — just look on the right for Puvis de
Chavannes’ In the Luxembourg, don’t forget Puvis de Chavannes’ Poor
Fisherman ”. 38 It is worth noting that the study for this picture was among
the early purchases made by Sergei Shchukin. The deliberately
restrained work of Puvis de Chavannes, by no means as daring in colour
as the canvases of Manet, Monet or Degas, was destined to become a
kind of banner for the following generation of artists. This generation
dreamt of murals, of an “eternal” type of art; the young painters were
fascinated by the promise which Puvis de Chavannes’s painting held;
they saw that contemporary easel painting could stimulate meditation on
life, breaking through the realm of purely visual facts. Maurice Denis,
who loved to express himself in the language of a manifesto, formulated
the aesthetic credo of his milieu in the following way: “We insist on the
idea that the visible is a manifestation of the invisible, that forms and
colours are indications of the state of our soul.” 39
The kind of painting the Nabis evolved was an art with a complex
orientation. Individual traits became more accentuated. Each artist
strove to establish a more direct relationship with life without divorcing
the external and the commonplace from the spiritual. The idea of
merging art and life, the intrusion of art into life, inspired many artists
and writers throughout Europe. This was most marked in Symbolism,
determining many of its merits and its failures. But for other artists too,
who were on the immediate fringes of Symbolism, this idea proved
important and fruitful.
The words of Vladislav Khodasevich concerning the Russian
Symbolist poets apply equally well to the Nabis: “Life here was very
specific . . . Here they tried to turn art into reality and reality into art.
Events in real life ... were never seen as simply belonging to life: they
at once became part of the inner world and part of creative work. And
the other way round: something written by any of them became part of
life for everyone. So, reality and literature were created by the collective
efforts of the forces — at times hostile to each other, but united even in
hostility — of all those who happened to find themselves part of this
extraordinary life ... Incessant enthusiasm, continuous movement was
all that was required from anyone who entered this order (and in a sense
Symbolism was an order), the aim did not matter. All roads were open,
and there was only one requirement — to move as quickly as possible
and as far as possible. That was their only dogma. You could worship
God or the Devil. You could be obsessed by anything you liked. The
sole condition was that you be obsessed completely.” 40
The attitude of rejection here, natural for a writer of the following
post-symbolist age, only serves to highlight the expressively acute
definition of the main “dogma”. Without taking into account this insistent
cult of the creative personality, it is hardly possible to explain the peaceful
coexistence of artists so different in temperament, frame of mind,
aesthetic views and historical preferences as we find among the Nabis and
among other groups at the close of the nineteenth century. The idea of
N A B I S
♦ Paul Gauguin, Nave nave moe, sacred springs or Sweet Dreams, 1894. Oil on canvas, 73 x 98 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
self-development postulated by the Nabis from the outset inexorably
generated centrifugal tendencies in their artistic work. Understandably,
therefore, with the advent of the twentieth century the divergence of
positions among the, by now former, members of the group became more
marked. Since painting always remained of paramount importance for
them, each member either gained or lost in authority, depending on his
achievements in that field. After more than a decade from the time the
group formed, the standing of each of its members had become clear.
Bonnard, Vuillard and Denis stood out not only as representatives of very
different trends, but also as the most gifted among the Nabis. And as the
century advanced, the amazing originality of the most significant artist of
the group, Bonnard, became even more evident. Today there can be no
doubt that he ranks among the most remarkable artists of the twentieth
century. His canvases reflect his own time, as do those of other artists of
his circle. Painting had made itself the image of the age. The image had
many facets: poetic and simple, full of wonder in Bonnard’s work;
excessively ornamental and therefore somewhat mysterious in Vuillard’s;
voluptuously dream-like in Denis’s; somewhat bitter and acerbic in
Vallotton’s. One point ought to be clarified here. In Bonnard’s work, the
transient, belonging to the receding past, is in some unfathomable way
fused with the eternal, belonging to no particular age. It is that which sets
Bonnard apart from the other Nabis.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, The Garden , c. 1936. Oil on canvas, 127 x 100 cm, Musee du Petit Palais, Paris.
♦ Pierre Bonnard, Port Trouville, 1936-1946. Oil on canvas, 77 x 103 cm, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
N A B I S
The names of Bonnard and Vuillard were already firmly linked in
the minds of those who appreciated new art by the beginning of the
twentieth century. Even before that, there had been a considerable
creative affinity between them, reinforced by a strong friendship. This
bond was only broken by Vuillard’s death, but their artistic paths, which
at first ran side by side, noticeably diverged in the 1920s and 1930s.
Vuillard’s painting became somehow drier, more “natural”, and quite
often fell into repetition, especially in his society portraits. Perhaps
sensing that something very important was slipping away from him, he
began to tackle a broader range of themes. He might paint not only a
game of cards but also, say, a medical scene, something inconceivable
for Bonnard. In comparison with Bonnard he was always slightly
lacking in emotional warmth, even in the early days when in terms of
artistry he was the equal of his friend.
As a ten-year-old at the Lycee Condorcet Vuillard made friends with
Roussel, Denis and Lugne-Poe. Supposedly it was Roussel who
persuaded the young Edouard to enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His
first works are signed Vuillard, eleve de M. Gerdme, but they already
display distinct maturity and steer clear of the temptations of the
academic painting and the portrayal of pleasant, engaging scenes which
the celebrated maitre himself practised. Like all the Nabis, Vuillard was
very well-read. He was fond of Baudelaire, Giraudoux and Valety and
adored Mallarme, who gave the artist a first edition of his Divagations
and wanted him, rather than anyone else, to illustrate his Herodiade.
Vuillard took an interest in many things, but his own way of life was
steady and uneventful. After losing his father fairly early he continued
to live with his mother and never married. His art tends towards calm,
but after first meeting him the perspicacious Signac saw him as “a
clever, intelligent boy, a highly-strung searching artist”.
“He showed me all his works from different periods, the searches
he had gone through. His little sketches of interiors have a good deal
of charm. He has a splendid understanding of the voices of things. His
pictures reveal a fine painter. In their dull colour scheme there is
always a flash of some bright colour establishing harmony in the
piece. The contrast of tones, the skilfully arranged chiaroscuro
balance out the different colours which, for all their dullness, are
always refined, almost morbidly so.” 41 Signac made that entry in his
diary on 16 February 1898.
Within days, on 19 February, Vuillard wrote in a letter to Maurice
Denis something we might consider his credo: “I have a fear or more pre-
cisely an awful terror of those commonly-held ideas which I have not
reached myself. It’s not that I deny their value, just that I would prefer
humiliation to aping understanding.” 42 Having no trust in accepted truths
and fashionable theories, Vuillard only acknowledged an idea when it had
matured within himself. In the same letter he also wrote that if he derived
joy from his work it was because he had within him an idea in which he
believed. But he never proclaimed his ideas. Like Bonnard he had a dislike
of publicity and said on several occasions “Silence protects me”. 43
Somewhat condescendingly calling Vuillard a boy (he was in fact
already about thirty), Signac noted “searches” and “periods” and was
undoubtedly surprised at the metamorphoses in the other’s work. By the
end of the century Vuillard had indeed changed his artistic manner more
than once, not, of course, following fashion, but following the dictates
of his own inner development. His early still lifes exude admiration for
Chardin. The Louvre, already familiar from frequent childhood visits,
strengthened Vuillard in his love of Rembrandt, Lesueur and Prud’hon.
Gauguin’s teaching, which came to him through The Talisman, found in
Vuillard a more committed follower than Serusier himself. The Nabis’
desire to paint “icons” took an unexpected turn in the small paintings of
1890-91 which were put together from a few small areas of colour that
were completely flat and very bright. Their boldness anticipates
Fauvism. Immediately afterwards Vuillard returned to calmer colours
and abandoned absolute flatness without, however, resorting to the
modelling devices used by the Old Masters. His painting became an
ornamental pattern with a very complex rhythm. Impressions of
Japanese woodcuts or old French mille-fleurs suggest themselves as
possible inspirations, but the most probable source of all was
contemporary cheap fabrics. At home and in the small dressmaker’s
studio which Vuillard’s mother ran after her husband’s death in order to
feed the family, the future artist was surrounded from an early age by
the unusual patterns and combinations of colours presented by jumbled
off-cuts of fabric. Moreover, Vuillard’s mother’s brother and father
were both fabric designers. Vuillard did not, however, follow their
example. He felt himself to be a painter, and fabrics for him were only
supplementary material, sometimes suggesting a new arabesque,
sometimes becoming an object for depiction in its own right. There are
paintings in which fabrics emerge as characters on a par with the human
♦ Edouard Vuillard, Chapel in Versailles, 1928. Oil on paper on canvas, 66 x 96 cm, Musee d’Orsay.
THE N A B I S
figures. Vuillard painted his mother and sister relaxing or performing
their laborious work, presented a homely breakfast or simply an interior.
His painting is consciously intimate, something encouraged by the
choice of themes. As far back as 1 892 Albert Aurier, the ardent advocate
of the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin, considered the leading
theoretician of the new painting, called Vuillard an “intimiste
verlainien ”. 44 At that same time Gustave Geffroy, in a review of an
exhibition at Le Barque de Bouteville’s pointed out the creative affinity
between Bonnard and Vuillard, stressing the way in which they
masterfully handled the smallest gradations of colour capable of
delighting the eye. “[They] possess a gift, of course, for nuances and the
play of lines, symmetrical and disorderly, combining and diverging
them with fascinating, exquisite taste for decorative painting.” 45
The manner which Geffroy described is one which Vuillard
maintained for a long time. It did go through modifications, though, and
the artist concurrently employed another manner marked by fairly strict
geometries and simplifications. The former is to be seen in his picture
In the Garden (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts) and paintings in both
Moscow and St Petersburg depicting domestic interiors, the latter
represented by Children (Hermitage). An example of the combination of
the two manners is found in the small work On the Sofa now in Moscow.
This ratio of works, with only one landscape to a number of interiors,
reflects an important peculiarity of Vuillard’s art: indoor scenes were
more attractive to him than the open spaces of landscape. This preference
for interiors made Vuillard a greater intimist than Bonnard. His
landscapes too were usually to a greater or lesser degree intimate pieces.
“His subjects,” the artist’s biographer Jacques Salomon wrote,
“were for a long period his room, his window, the view from his
window: the yard or garden. ... He would not have put on his boots to
go and paint snow, he would have gazed at it from his room, looking
out. As for his portraits, he catches his models in their own homes in
accustomed surroundings.” 46 What makes the intimism of a Vuillard
landscape? Partly the role played by his characters. Placed in the centre
♦ Edouard Vuillard, In the Garden, 1899. Tempera on cardboard, 51 x 83 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
THE N A B I S
of In the Garden are two ladies seated comfortably round a garden table.
Their conversation seems unhurried and routine, perhaps about knitting
or domestic chores. Yet these female figures do not dominate the com-
position. The intimate effect of the picture is due to the general
vagueness of details, the softness of colouring, the subdued opaque tex-
ture and the limited space, with the landscape reduced to the lawn
instead of stretching to infinity and no room whatever left for the sky.
This type of composition can be traced back to early Impressionism, or
rather to Claude Monet (Women in the Garden, Musee d’Orsay, Paris,
and Lady in the Garden, Hermitage, St Petersburg; both 1867). In those
pictures, with an emphasis on pictorial effect, the subject matter is
already losing its significance. Three decades later Van Gogh and
Gauguin, developing Monet’s motifs while working side by side in
Arles, painted, respectively, Reminiscence of the Garden at Etten
(Hermitage, St Petersburg) and In the Garden of the Aries Hospital (Art
Institute of Chicago). Vuillard might have seen one of these pictures,
perhaps both. Each employs the Japanese type of design, avoiding
depth, with the artist viewing the scene from above and placing the line
of the horizon beyond the top of the composition. The difference,
however, is more noticeable than the similarity. To Van Gogh and
Gauguin, human presence is of paramount importance, therefore the
female figures are clear-cut and large-scale. The powerful emotional
message is paralleled by the effective picturesque qualities. Proceeding
from Seurat’s and Signac’s methods, Van Gogh made his paintings ex-
tremely “tense” by applying large divided strokes of contrasting
colours. Vuillard and his fellow artists did not like smooth surfaces
either; nevertheless, Vuillard’s divided strokes create an altogether
different impression. His use of the cardboard’s brownish colour, with
the ground not completely covered by paint (a technique favoured by
the Nabis as well as Toulouse-Lautrec), contributes not only to the
effective economy of means, but also to a more subdued and softened
pictorial quality. The painting is notable for its decorativeness. It is
evident that Vuillard did not aim to create an illusion of reality. The
decorative quality of the picture is of a specific type reminding us that
the artist worked as a stage designer. Vuillard shared, at least in the
1890s, the idea of the Nabis and those artists who grouped round the
♦ Edouard Vuillard, The Room, 1899. Oil on cardboard, glued on parquet, 52 x 79 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
♦ Edouard Vuillard, On the Sofa (In the White Room), 1892-93. Oil on cardboard glued on canvas, 32 x 38 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Ails, Moscow.
♦ Edouard Vuillard, At the Window (Interior. Woman at the Window). 1907-08. Oil on cardboard, 40.2 x 33 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
Revue Blanche that the main purpose of painting is to produce
monumental works. Some time later Octave Mirbeau remarked in his
preface to the sale catalogue of Thadee Natanson’s collection, which
included 26 paintings by Vuillard, “His magic needs walls”. 47 Vuillard
agreed with Lesueur, his favourite fellow artist, that monumental
painting was the supreme art form, yet the best of his own work is easel
painting, suggestive though it is of his decorative panels and stage
designs. The very early painting by Vuillard called On the Sofa (Pushkin
Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow) is marked with a rare artistic daring. It
consists of two seemingly very different parts: the one on the right
dominated by white and devoid of pictorial details, for it merely
features a door and a wall; the one on the left — a juxtaposition of
various pure colours and ornaments. It is remarkable that the two parts,
however different, seem to belong together. All the details are well
balanced, a quality which is especially important in paintings of
interiors. The title On the Sofa is quite appropriate, as that piece of
furniture is more significant than the woman reclining on it, who seems
no more than a feature of the interior.
The human figures in Vuillard’s painting behave with an extreme
calmness. The woman in On the Sofa is asleep, the family in the picture
called In the Room are engrossed in reading. The pleasures of the home,
the unhurried domestic round — that is what Vuillard’s art dealt with.
The painter would not highlight the occupations pursued by his
characters. The design depends on the models to strike a note of vitality,
and they are always well-matched to the interior decoration. Only oc-
casionally are they treated as individuals. They are, as it were, resultant
forces in the system of colour patches and consequently they ultimately
serve as colour patches, too. The human figures are inseparable from
their surroundings, sometimes to the point of merging with the
background. Vuillard had the subtle intuition of a colourist, which led
him to discover an abundance of artistic resources where they had
formerly remained neglected: in the regular and simple routine, in the
details of everyday life.
At times Vuillard might seem to be unthinkingly registering
whatever caught his eye, unruffled by the ungainly or the unsightly,
such as the black cast-iron stove and flue of In the Room.
No detail is omitted here, and a closer look at the painting reveals
not only the stove, tables and chairs, but also a number of minor objects,
like the vases and the waste-paper basket. The viewer is unaware that
the basket is “inelegant”, because the material quality of things is erased
and completely dominated by the pictorial pattern. The objects seem to
dissolve, turning into patches of subdued colours, yet still they are there.
Vuillard was second to none at grasping the beauty of soft tints, always
immaculately suited to his peaceful interiors.
♦ Edouard Vuillard, Three Panels from “Jardins Publics”: Public
Gardens; the Nursemaid; The Red Parasol , 1894. Oil on canvas, panel
1: 73 x 217.5 cm, panel 2: 154 x 213 cm, panel 3: 81 x 214 cm.
Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
THE N A B I S
♦ Edouard Vuillard, Children, 1908-09. Tempera on paper glued on canvas, 84.5 x 77.7 cm. Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
Like all the Nabis, Vuillard attached immense importance to colour
effects. Both Vuillard and Bonnard managed to use them to enhance the
intimate mood of a picture. Their contemporaries already detected the
similarity between their gentle colour palettes and Debussy’s music.
Their awareness of fleeting nuances and waning undertints combined
the Impressionist commitment to real subject-matter and the craving for
the mysterious and the indefinite, which amounted to the most
outstanding feature of art at the turn of the century. The latter tendency
found its ultimate expression in Symbolism, but it influenced even those
artists who were not involved in this trend. For all the softness and
delicacy of his art, Vuillard never disregarded the structure of his
compositions, and this is something which distinguished him from the
rest of the Nabis. Both In the Room and Children display a framework
formed by bringing together the straight lines of the buildings and
pieces of furniture.
The viewpoint selected in Children is such that a geometric pattern
is formed by the screen, balcony, door and carpet, which links the
patches of colour together. This is done so unobtrusively that the artist’s
concern for the structure of his composition remains unnoticeable.
Compared with In the Room, encumbered with objects to an almost
psychopathic degree, Children reveals another aspect of Vuillard the
painter: a gourmet turned ascetic, as Jacques Emile Blanche very aptly
remarked. 48 Here Vuillard makes a bold use of empty spaces, relying on
them to strengthen the whole composition. The pale patch of the floor
takes up about a third of the canvas and nearly all of the foreground. The
contrast between the empty light surfaces and the richly tinted and
colourful details endows the painting with an inner significance. The
artist did not have to resort to an unusual or exotic theme to achieve a
rich decorative effect. His subject-matter was always at hand: mainly
the lives of his nearest and dearest.
♦ Edouard Vuillard, In the Room, 1903. Oil on cardboard, 50 x 77 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
N A B I S
♦ Ker Xavier Roussel, Mythological Subject, 1903. Oil on cardboard, 47 x 62 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
KER XAVIER ROVSSEL
Roussel was bom into the family of a well-known Paris physician
who worshipped the arts and had a wide circle of acquaintances among
artists. Doctor Roussel entrusted his son’s training to a friend of his,
Maillard, winner of the Prix de Rome. Maillard’s studio had once
belonged to Delacroix, so Roussel would often hear the great
Romantic’s name mentioned there, and was to be influenced by his
vigorous colours in the years to come, although Maillard himself was
entirely committed to the academic manner of painting. Vuillard,
Roussel’s fellow student at the Lycee, followed suit and began studying
under Maillard also. It was with Vuillard’s family that Roussel found
refuge when his parents separated, and he subsequently married
The 1 890s saw a strong similarity between the creative activities of
Roussel and Vuillard. Roussel, like Vuillard, began by painting meticu-
lous still lifes and making sketches of figures, though he was totally
indifferent to interiors. Compared to Vuillard, he was more easily
influenced, more dependent on Japanese art and the work of Puvis de
Chavannes. The early years of the twentieth century were the crucial
point in his career, when the themes of his painting, as well as
compositional and pictorial devices, were being established.
The subjects of Roussel’s art were shaped by his literary tastes. In
his younger days he used to carry a book of Virgil’s poetry about with
him, and a great many of his mature canvases seem to have been
inspired by Bucolics. As for contemporary poets, he had the greatest
admiration for Mallarme and was particularly impressed by his
L’Apres-midi d’un fame. When he was teaching at the Academie
Ranson, he would bring with him a volume of Mallarme and read out
poems to his students, believing that they would stir their imagination
better than any instruction or exhortation. The motifs of his own art
were chiefly fauns and nymphs, Bacchanal dances and pastoral idylls.
Roussel obviously strove to create a modern version of the “historical
landscape”, not anaemic or sugary-sweet, like the works of the Salon
maitres. but vigorous and genuinely picturesque, and it was for that
reason that he shared Cezanne’s esteem for Poussin. He was also
fascinated by Cross, whose pictures were a luscious blend of myth and
reality. In 1906, Roussel and Denis visited Provence and made
pilgrimages to Cezanne in Aix and Cross in Saint-Clair. This trip
became an important landmark in Roussel’s career. Making a record
of their visit to Cezanne, Denis wrote that his studio was adorned with
♦ Ker Xavier Roussel, In the Snow (Training the Dog), 1893. Color lithograph, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
a reproduction of Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds. This painting
provided a major starting point for Roussel. It is not known whether
they spoke of Poussin at their meeting, but we do know that Cezanne’s
thoughts often turned to Poussin. His cherished ambition was to
enliven Poussin by making use of a natural setting, or transform him
in concord with nature. In fact, Roussel had conceived the same idea
long before the visit to Cezanne. In March 1898, Denis wrote in his
diary, “Roussel says he wonders what made Poussin modify his
beautiful sketches in such a way that the paintings turned out to be
quite unlike the sketches”. 49
These modifications were chiefly the consequence of the artist’s
ideas not finding their ultimate expression until he put the finishing
touches to his work whilst turning a sketch into a picture. The point is
that the Old Masters had a desire to be understood by their customers
and other people sharing the same views, whereas the pioneers of new
art who worked at the time of conflict between the Salon and avant-
garde artists used to look down on the general public and remained
distrustful of the masses. Of course, Poussin knew the worth of natural
free and easy brushwork and application of colours, but for him these
values were not decisive, much less the only condition for creating a
work of art. Late nineteenth-century artists were preoccupied with the
idea of spontaneity, but they found themselves obliged to follow the
precepts of the Old Masters when dealing with vast spaces, especially
in decorative and monumental compositions. However, to do so did
not necessarily mean to accept those precepts wholeheartedly. It was
the urge for artistic spontaneity that made Roussel re-paint the
finished canvases time and again, not necessarily improving the
On the other hand, Roussel’s ardent nature and individualism might
well have been what kept him from resorting to banal stylization. Was
it chance that politically he tended towards anarchism? He was keenly
aware of the poetic quality of Mediterranean myths. As early as the
1890s, Roussel was painting landscapes with nude and half-clothed
figures, in which the line between myth and reality was practically
obliterated. His pastoral scenes are far from being a mere play of
imagination; they look amazingly true to life and are capable therefore
of striking a humorous note.
Roussel’s Arcadia is indeed sparkling with the vivid colours of the
French Mediterranean wielded by an artist inspired with a profound
love for nature. Ajoyful eulogy in praise of the abundant south and life
itself is to be found in Roussel’s Rural Festival, permeated with the
sweeping and exultant spirit of the ancient pagan world.
♦ Ker Xavier Roussel, The Triumph of Ceres (Rural Festival), 1911-1913. Oil on canvas, 164 x 123 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
♦ Ker Xavier Roussel, The Triumph of Bacchus (Rural Festival), 1911-13. Oil on canvas, 116.5 x 119.5 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
Denis was born in Granville, where his parents had fled from the
Franco-Prussian War. His boyhood and adolescence were spent at his
parents’ home at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and also in Paris. In the course
of his numerous travels Denis frequently visited Italy, for he held the art
of that country in great esteem. He attended the Lycee Condorcet, which
laid the foundations for his extraordinary breadth of knowledge and his
future artistic associations.
As a boy Denis was ambitious. One of the first entries in his diary,
which he kept till the end of his life, was a proud mention of the fact that
he had won second prize for French, first prize for history and second
for drawing. He was not yet 14 years old. Subsequently he was to win
many more honours, including membership in the Academie. His
personality not being very strong, he was incapable of becoming a
leader. Verkade remarked after the Nabis had formed a group, “He was
like a girl tied to her mother’s apron-strings”. 50 Nevertheless, he was full
of vitality. It was he who helped Serusier, at the Academie Julian, to
bring together a group of students sharing the same ideas. Eventually he
became one of the organizers of the Salon d’Automne. He always
wished to play a prominent part in the artistic life of Paris, not only as
a painter, but also as art critic, theorist, instructor and even preacher.
Denis was profoundly pious from childhood. He wrote in his diary
in May 1885, “Yes, I must become a Christian painter and eulogise all
the wonders of Christianity; I feel that this is necessary”. 51
His quest to combine art and religion, which became apparent
during his Nabi period, eventually and logically resulted in his setting
up the Ateliers d’Art Sacre in 1919 and joining the Franciscan order.
However, Denis was too much of an artist to remain merely a
minister of religion at such a time as the late nineteenth century. For it
was he who, at the age of twenty, coined the statement that first
appeared in the journal Art et Critique under the pen-name of Pierre
Louis and was to be echoed by avant-garde artists in the decades that
followed: “A picture — before being a war horse, a female nude, or
some anecdote — is essentially a flat surface covered with paints in a
particular order”. 52 This statement, slightly altered, came to express the
aesthetic programme of Symbolism: “... the sounds, colours and words
are wonderfully expressive regardless of any representation; indeed,
regardless of the actual meaning of the words”. 53
In 1901 Denis exhibited a large canvas called Homage to Ce:anne at
the Salon de la Societe Nationale des Beaux- Arts (1900, Musee
d’Orsay, Paris), which could be regarded as a manifesto of the new art.
It was a full-length group portrait of himself, Redon, Serusier, Bonnard,
Roussel, Vuillard and Vollard standing round a still life by the then
little-known artist. The Nabis were enthusiastic admirers of Cezanne,
and Denis was among his first advocates and expounders, although his
own art owes little to Cezanne. He was much closer to Gauguin, not
only when he was first impressed by his Talisman, but also years later.
Incidentally, the Cezanne still life on the easel in the Homage belonged
to Gauguin, a fact that only those “in the know” were aware of.
It is only natural that by smoothing away the harshness present in
the art of Cezanne and Gauguin, Denis should have gained fame
quickly, while the other two did not achieve real recognition during
their lifetimes. Yet this is not to say that Denis practised such artistic
methods with the sole purpose of becoming successful. In the first
place, there were shorter and safer ways to early fame by becoming an
academic painter; secondly, such qualities as softness, refinement and
prettiness were innate in Denis’s character and passed on to his art. It
seems probable that Denis would have arrived at the style of his own
even without Gauguin’s influence, although it might have come some-
what later and with some slight differences. Even before he became
acquainted with Gauguin’s art, Denis was strongly attracted by
simplified forms, soft decorative effects and lofty themes. When
visiting the Puvis de Chavannes exhibition, the 17-year-old Denis was
enchanted by the “wonderful, quiet and simple decorative quality of
his pictures and by their compositions producing a delightful and
mysterious effect on the soul”. 54 Puvis de Chavannes, Gauguin and
Early Renaissance Italian masters led Denis to think that
“synthesizing is not just simplifying or eliminating some details of the
object; but simplifying means making things clearer, briefer, more
orderly, subordinating the details to a single dominant rhythmical
pattern, making sacrifices, revealing dependence, coming to
generalisations”. 55 From a fascination with Puvis de Chavannes and
Gauguin, Denis went on to study the art of Poussin, Raphael and Fra
Angelico. He departed from the original simplicity of form, without
noticing himself that it amounted to sharing the views of
academicism. These changes, however, did not become apparent until
the early years of the twentieth century. The 1890s were a distinct
stage in Denis’s career, when his painting was sincere and gently
♦ Maurice Denis, The Encounter. Oil on cardboard, 37.5 x 33 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
N A B I S
♦ Maurice Denis, The Wedding Procession, 1892. Oil on doubled canvas, 26 x 63 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
N A B I S
THE N A B I S
poetic, marked by a quiet elegance of style entirely his own. Only
occasionally did his taste fail him at that time, something that cannot
be said of the 1900s nor especially of the 1910s to 1930s At the turn
of the century Denis’s religious experience made him look back on the
past as a time of still unshaken faith, an attitude shared by many artists
and strengthened by the revival of religion in Europe, brought about
by the crisis of Positivism.
In turning to biblical subjects (The Visitation, Martha and Mary),
Denis was dealing with exceptionally enduring iconographic
traditions. But at a time when any kind of art was expected to be
imaginative and demonstrated new solutions, Denis could not confine
himself to an accustomed compositional scheme. It was a great
challenge to give biblical subjects a new treatment; it was a still
greater challenge to make this treatment simple and natural. Denis
achieved this by making use of gently outlined forms, subtle rhythmic
patterns and a skilled choice of the details of the setting. It was in such
biblical paintings as Martha and Mary that Denis’s Neo-Traditionalism
attained its finest expression.
The deep-rooted tradition of portrait painting is violated in Martha
and Mary in that the figures in the foreground are more vague than the
landscape in the background. Denis first used this device in his
lithographs and subsequently it found its way into his paintings. The
intention was to emphasize the religious context. The overall mood of
the canvas, the obscuring of details, all the more noticeable and
deliberate because they pertain to the images of Christ and other biblical
characters depicted as large-scale figures, distinguish Denis’s work
strongly from the religious paintings of Gauguin, an artist who had
obviously “stepped away” from Symbolism. Denis rather affiliated
himself with the artists who “stuck by” that movement and adhered to
obscure, mystic images, “smoky” in the case of Carriere, glowing with
Gustave Moreau, nocturnal with Levy-Dhurmer or very light with
Redon, whose blend of colour and light made the faces in his canvases
look ephemeral. Martha and Mary is a most striking example of how
Denis was trying to bridge the gap between Gauguin and Redon.
Biblical subjects are often associated in Denis’s early pictures with his
personal experiences, an attitude similar to Gauguin’s. The figure on the
right in The Visitation is an idealized likeness of Marthe, the artist’s wife.
When the picture was being painted, she was pregnant. Denis treated the
biblical scene as a sublime equivalent of reality, so that it acquired a
special significance for him.
His marriage to Marthe Meurier in 1893 was a major event in his
life. From that time onwards most of his female figures bore a
resemblance to his wife. She was depicted by Denis in his religious
works as an ethereal, or indeed incorporeal, creature, which she was
most definitely not, as the portrait of her in the Pushkin Museum of Fine
Arts clearly shows. Paintings like Martha and Mary can be perceived as
having two facets: one traditional, that of a biblical story, the other
intimate and more obscure. In both The Visitation and Martha and Mary
the two female characters look uncannily alike. With regard to the
former painting, this similarity may be accounted for by the fact that
they are close relatives. But even if the characters are not related, Denis
still deliberately adhered to his favourite types. This duplication
smoothes away all idiosyncrasies and transfers the painting into the
realm of allegory. Denis’s biblical paintings mostly depict female
characters. This preference indeed determined his choice of subjects.
Only infrequently did he turn to dramatic episodes, for they were alien
to his rather feminine talent.
Denis’s portrait and genre paintings created in this same period are
also imbued with an air of controlled solemnity peculiar to religious
art. Portrait of Marthe Denis, the Artist’s Wife (1893, Pushkin Museum
of Fine Arts, Moscow) captures purely casual details: Marthe is por-
trayed adjusting her shoulder-strap, and a woman in the background is
taking washing off the line. But these details only slightly obscure the
classical character of the picture. The Encounter is reminiscent of The
Visitation and is seen as some formal act worthy of a painter’s brush.
Denis’s scenes of motherhood are always suggestive of the Virgin and
Child. The sincerity of Denis’s emotion helped him to keep up to the
mark even in such idyllic pictures as Mother and Child. He was
tempted by a kind of colour scheme that is almost sickly sweet, and at
times he could not resist the temptation. This hazard was happily
avoided in the portrait of his wife Marthe and daughter Noele now in
the Hermitage. With great discretion Denis softened the striped pattern
of the mother’s dress, which is used to set off the baby’s white robe.
By this simple device he manages to avoid monotony, skilfully
bringing into harmony the curved outlines of human figures and the
rectangular shapes of the doors, windows and the frame on the wall.
The Christian art tradition is also very noticeable in a few pictures
based on real events. Sacred Spring in Guide! being one of them. This
small-scale, intensely picturesque painting is superior to many large-
sized genre compositions with some story to them. It provides an
impressive example of what Denis’s gift as a colourist could have
♦ Maurice Denis, Mother and Child, 1895. Oil on canvas 45 x 38.5, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
N A B I S
♦ Maurice Denis, Portrait of Marthe Denis, the Artist’s Wife, 1893. Oil on canvas, 45 x 54 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
THE N A B I S
developed into had he not subordinated it to the theory of Neo-
Traditionalism and rigid rules of composition. The appearance of
Figures in a Springtime Landscape (The Sacred Grove) has become a
landmark in the history of Symbolism. With its allegoric and
evanescent quality and elaborately bizarre style, as well as the
numerous allusions it evokes, this painting is akin to Symbolist poetry.
Though profoundly personal, it gives objective expression to a whole
programme of Symbolism, which requires a measure of erudition and
contemplation on the part of the viewer.
Figures in a Springtime Landscape is a splendid demonstration of
how Gauguin’s manner was adapted by Denis. It is not only that
Symbolism becomes more involved. After Wedding Procession or The
Visitation, this canvas marks a divergence from Denis’s earlier flatly
treated paintings which had been stimulated by his visits to Italy, where
he was influenced by the Renaissance painting. The scope of different
allusions brought to mind by Figures in a Springtime Landscape is
amazing: old tapestries, Neo-Impressionism, Raphael and Puvis de
Chavannes. The painting is designed in such a way that all details are
reduced to a single common denominator: the outlines of the female
nudes and the drapery echo each other and also the contours of the trees.
However, Gauguin’s method of rhythmical similarities is only sparingly
employed by Denis. By flattening the surface of the picture, Denis
strives for a pattern of lines that would not only delineate the patches of
colour, but also be one with them, striking the same chord. The delicate
interlacing of streaming lines is in harmony with the subtle colour
scheme that is dominated by pinkish hues. Unlike Gauguin, Denis had
a desire to be liked, which is still further evidence of the feminine nature
of his art. Denis saw the difference between the Symbolist wing of the
Nabis, to which he belonged together with Serusier and Ranson, and the
circle of Bonnard, Vuillard and Roussel as being that, while attaching
great importance to the human figure, he was inclined to give
supremacy to the drawing.
From the start of the twentieth century, Denis found it increasingly
difficult to retain a balance between drawing and colour. His drawing
would quite often become harsh, his colour scheme crude and garish.
Compared to his best works produced in the 1890s, or even Sacred
Spring in Guidel, the twin canvases Bacchus and Ariadne and Polyphemus
seem lacking in clearness and perspicuity The bathing woman in Poly-
phemus is directly borrowed from Gauguin’s Fatata te miti (On the
Seashore) painted in 1892.
This painting was in Vollard’s possession and Denis was
undoubtedly familiar with it. Gauguin’s influence can also be traced in
the decorative and ornamental treatment of the breaking waves.
However, the handling of the figures in the foreground goes against
Gauguin’s method. They do not seem to belong in this stylized
landscape. Gauguin’s precept of avoiding poses in motion is
disregarded here. Degas, who was primarily preoccupied with the
human body in motion, developed special qualities of drawing,
ingeniously evading the rigidity of line. Departing from Gauguin’s
soothing balanced design and, consequently, from the principles of his
own early work, ignoring the dynamic quality of Degas’s pictures,
Denis doomed his art to the eclecticism of academic painting, which
he had rejected in his younger days. He seemed to have forgotten his
own daring statement: “A picture — before being a female nude — is
a flat surface...” The nudes in Denis’s Bacchus and Ariadne and
Polyphemus are painted in a three-dimensional manner, with bulging
muscles, contrasting shadows and reflexes. This approach resulted
from the artist’s desire to breathe new life into the ancient legend, to
bring the myth up to date. The modernisation, however, appears to be
rather forced. Ariadne reclining on the rock calls to mind classical
sculpture, whereas the bathing men and women are part of another
world, the world of bourgeois fashion which rejects all legend.
Polyphemus looks very much like an obese habitue of seaside resorts.
The picture almost strikes a note of caricature. Vallotton used this
approach to achieve a calculated effect; with Denis, the same method
seems to be evidence of a lack of taste, all the more unexpected since
he had shown himself an artist of subtle, indeed refined, judgement.
After the break-up of the Nabis, the art of Denis and his fellow
painters was put to a test. It is notable that while Bonnard managed to
avoid a crisis, the whole Symbolist wing was affected. These artists,
obsessed with cramming symbols and metaphors into their pictures in
order to expound elements of Christian doctrine, a theosophical theory
or literary narration, were vulnerable to inadequacies in the painterly
sphere. Not that they were less gifted than the rest. That is true only
of Serusier, while Denis was exceptionally talented. However, his
stylistic vacillations in the 1890s betray his uncertainty with regard to
his choice of artistic direction. Denis was a man of both knowledge
and ability, yet his pictures and panels increasingly came to resemble
mere tinted drawings. Later on, realistic paintings, not quite what one
would expect from him, such as New York skyscrapers, alternated
with returns to the style of his youth, showing a preference for flat
surfaces, but he never recaptured the excellence of his early canvases.
N A B I S
[ f j i'/r
♦ Maurice Denis, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1906-1907. Oil on canvas, 81 x 116 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
♦ Maurice Denis, The Flying Cupid is Struck by Psyche ’s Beauty, 1907. One of five main decorative panels The Legend of Psyche, 1 907-08. Oil on
canvas, 394 x 269.5 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
N A B I S
♦ Maurice Denis, Sheperds (The Green Seashore), 1909. Oil on canvas, 97 x 180 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
N A B I S
N A B I S
♦ Maurice Denis, Figures in a Springtime Landscape, 1897. Oil on canvas, 156.3 x 178.5 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
At the end of his career Denis was preoccupied with the ideas of
monumental art, which often seem far-fetched. The panel he painted
for the Bureau International du Travail in Geneva (1931) shows an
Old-Master type of Christ wearing a classical tunic preaching to
labourers who might have stepped into the picture from a photograph,
dressed as they are in the fashions of the early 1930s. Over a period of
fifty years Denis created a large number of monumental decorative
works for private houses, theatres, churches and public buildings.
Only a few of them — including The Legend of Psyche commissioned
by Ivan Morozov — attain the level of his best easel paintings. In his
old age, turning over his most important works in his mind, Maurice
Denis described the Moscow series as dating from his easy and
formula period. 56 Indeed, the Legend of Psyche series is not without a
certain ease, though it is the cultivated ease of the skilfully applied
and readily appreciated formula, in this case of Art Nouveau.
Art Nouveau, which flourished at the turn of the century, aimed
especially at the creation of a decorative and monumental ensemble.
It seemed that everything — from architecture to jewellery — could
be reduced to the curvilinear forms of Art Nouveau. This movement
lived and breathed with the idea of synthesis, while clinging
tenaciously to the notion of elegance. The ceramics and pieces of
furniture which Denis designed for Morozov’s house, as well as the
series of thirteen panels, all belonged together and were derived from
the same principles. The total effect of the interior was intensified by
In this ensemble, with its beautiful architecture sheltering applied arts,
sculpture and painting, it was the last which reigned supreme, for painting
always set the tone at Morozov’s. The interior decoration was centred
around the five largest panels. They were similar in size and were
effectively united by a shared degree of flatness, the same scale of figures
and interplay of colours. Nevertheless, Denis’s decorative painting is not
flawless. The facial expressions of the figures are banal, the garlands,
bouquets and clouds are commonplace. The combination of blue and pink
surfaces is determined by the subject, but equally by the traditional
principles of Art Nouveau. Denis worked within the bounds of generally
accepted standards. Similar decorative approaches are easily found in the
design of posters and labels, as the individual personality of the artist
becomes increasingly lost. The abundance of flesh is rather obtrusive.
Only the third panel. Psyche Discovers that her Mysterious Lover is Cupid,
is better in this respect. Here the bright pink of a naked body is
transformed into a pinkish-ochre by the light of the oil-lamp and the com-
position is well set off by the dark background. The emphasis on the
centre of the canvas makes the subject-matter more intelligible. The panel
is designed like an easel-painting, and that is yet another demonstration of
the fact that Denis’s greatest merit lay in this field.
♦ Maurice Denis, Decoration for the chapel of the College Sainte-Croix du Vesinet. Right hand panel with angels and altarboys, 1 899. Oil on canvas,
115 x 250 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
THE N A B I S
The “foreign Nabi” stood out among the members of the group, not so
much because of his non-French extraction as because of his manner of
painting, quite unlike that of his fellow artists. For this reason some critics
have regarded his affiliation with the Nabis as purely formal. For instance
Charles Chasse, whose book on the Nabis was published in Switzerland,
the artist’s homeland, 57 scarcely mentions Vallotton, whereas he sets aside
whole chapters to artists who did not belong to this group at all and played
a lesser part in the history of painting at the turn of the century.
Nevertheless, the Nabis must have had their reasons for admitting the
newcomer from Lausanne into their circle, even if they did hesitate over it.
All the Nabis’ first efforts were remarkable for their maturity, but
Vallotton achieved mastery even sooner than the others. His style was
established very early and remained practically unchanged. While
Bonnard’s fledgeling canvases did not contain the promise of his later
works, Vallotton displayed his talent to the full at the very outset of his
career. As a boy of sixteen, he amazed his teachers in Lausanne with a
study of an old man’s head, executed with a sure hand. Soon afterwards
he moved to Paris. His Self-Portrait at Seventeen (1882, Musee Cantonal
des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne) was probably painted at that time. This
picture is remarkable for the masterful handling of minute details and
their balanced arrangement. The artist makes no attempt at pictorial
effects. The portrait is austere and somewhat reserved, as was the
painter himself. Looking out at us from the canvas is a boy who seems
too serious for his age, assertive and independent in his judgement.
Vallotton had a hard time during his first decade in Paris. Fie had to do
odd jobs like the restoration and reproduction of engravings; he also
contributed to fashion magazines and various humorous publications. A
measure of fame finally came to him with his woodcuts, daring and
generalized in manner, devoid of any half-tones. His portraits, landscapes,
street and genre scenes revealing aspects of bourgeois life that society
preferred to keep hidden are always extremely stark and highly caustic. In
the 1 890s Vallotton produced far more woodcuts than paintings.
As far back as 1885, when Vallotton first showed his works at the
Salon des Artistes Franyais, they drew the attention of art critics. However,
both at that time and for years to come, progressive artists who advocated
the supremacy of pictorial effect and the unrestrained use of colours looked
on his manner as something retrograde. “Vallotton’s paintings are anti-
picturesque,” Signac wrote in his diary in April 1 898. “This sensible young
man is wrong in thinking that he is endowed with a talent for painting. He
thinks that by employing a calculated and conservative technique he is
imitating Holbein and Ingres, but he only succeeds in imitating
Bouguereau’s worst pupils. The result is ungainly and unintelligent.
However, Vallotton is undoubtedly endowed with intelligence and a sense
of the beautiful, which is confirmed by his woodcuts.” 58
Indeed, at first sight Vallotton’s paintings and woodcuts might have
been executed by two different artists. His paintings are rather
meticulous, whereas the woodcuts retain only the major details, with
everything that is of minor importance absorbed by blackness. Yet they
do have something in common: the immaculate draughtsmanship, the
decorative and generalizing quality of line, which, according to the
prominent early twentieth-century art critic Jacques Riviere, “enlaces”
the form. Also, like the black patches in his woodcuts, colour in his
paintings is distributed in extensive zones, within which the individual
brushstroke, regarded as the main unit and measure of painterly activity,
is scarcely detectable. Signac, who could not bear smoothness and “blew
up” his surfaces with divided strokes, regarded Vallotton’s brushwork as
the complete antithesis of his own style and, indeed, of everything that
derived from Impressionism. But the young Swiss, who had arrived in
Paris when the Impressionists were still striving for recognition, did not
know them, or at least had no wish to do so. That was not because he was
wholly “indoctrinated” by Jules Lefebvre, Bouguereau and Boulanger at
the Academie Julian; in fact, he preferred going to the Louvre and
making copies of Antonello da Messina, Leonardo da Vinci and Diirer.
“I have been thinking about the Italian Primitivists, and particularly
about those wonderful unknown artists in the German museums; those
exquisite masters, whose brilliant ideas, put down on canvas in perfect
form, have an immediate impact even today, four centuries later, yet they
did not even think to sign their names for our benefit,” 59 Vallotton wrote
in May 1893 in the Gazette de Lausanne, to which he contributed
regularly. Not only did he practise journalism, but he was also the author
of three novels and six plays. In Germany or Switzerland the kind of
painting cultivated by Vallotton would probably have been recognized
more easily. But even in Paris it gradually found supporters. From 1899
onward Vallotton devoted most of his time to painting. His efforts were
encouraged by his wife, Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques (nee Bernheim
Jeune), a widow who had three children from her first marriage.
Gabrielle was a good match, as well as being quite prosperous: she
connected him with a major firm of art dealers.
As a painter Vallotton was amazingly prolific. He compiled a list of
1,587 of his paintings in the Livre de raison, which he kept from 1885
♦ Maurice Denis, Sacred Spring in Guidel, 1905. Oil on canvas, 39 x 34.5 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
N A B I S
♦ Felix Vallotton, The Dinner, 1900. Oil on cardboard, 55 x 86.8 cm, Kirov Regional Museum of Fine Art.
THE N A B I S
♦ Felix Vallotton, Interior, 1903-1904. Oil on cardboard, 61.5 x 56 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
♦ Felix Vallotton, Portrait of Madame Haasen, 1908. Oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
♦ Felix Vallotton, Woman with Black Hat, 1908. Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
N A B I S
♦ Felix Vallotton, Portrait of Georges Haasen, 1913. Oil on canvas, 81.7 x 100.5 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
♦ Felix Vallotton, Lady at the Piano, 1904. Oil on canvas, 43.5 x 57 cm, Hermitage, St Petersburg.
THE N A B I S
until his death (proof of his great methodicalness). Considering that
there were nonetheless inevitable omissions, while sometimes the same
entry covers several variants of a work and, above all, remembering his
meticulous manner of execution, it must be conceded that Vallotton was
an extraordinarily hard-working artist.
Vallotton’s first efforts were limited to portraits, very conscientiously
executed, painted from nature. Subsequently his range expanded with
portraits decoratifs, usually invented, and portraits with genre elements.
Vallotton’s portraiture of the 1890s often displays a tendency towards
narrative, and he appears to have been a storyteller with keen insight, his
irony usually bordering on the malicious. When he sets down his
glimpses of Paris life on canvas, his paintings come to resemble
woodcuts, for they treat similar subjects in an expressive, not to say
Expressionistic, manner. They also reveal what united Vallotton with the
rest of the Nabis: his compositional and decorative ingenuity. Concert
( 1 895, Private Collection), for instance, is close to Bonnard’s work, even
down to employing the same type of decorative motifs, though the
Frenchman’s smile is superseded by the sarcasm of the Swiss. Vallotton’s
genre paintings are for the most part set in an interior: he showed an
obvious preference for closed spaces. In some portraits dating from the
early years of the twentieth century the role of the interior is so
significant that it is no longer a mere setting. At that time, the interior as
subject matter in its own right captured the artist’s interest, though it was
later superseded by female nudes and mythological and allegoric
subjects. Vallotton never gave up portraiture and also would turn quite
often to still life. The essence of Vallotton’s painting is splendidly
revealed by his interiors: spick and span, motionless, nature morte in the
literal sense of the word. The human figures are just as much material
objects in these nature-morte interiors as the beds and the wardrobes. The
mesmeric registration of objects, an almost judicially precise record of
early twentieth-century life, seems to conceal a melancholy which is on
the point of developing into a fatalistic indifference. Yet what Vallotton
depicted was not somebody else’s life but his own, and the figures were
people he himself was close to. The interior of his home in Paris found
its way into a series of paintings conceived as modern versions of de
Hooch or Janssen. However, the artist’s irony precludes the heartfelt
warmth that cheered the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters.
Jean Cassou saw one of the major traits of Vallotton’s nature as being the
“bourgeois anarchism” which was most strikingly revealed in his literary
activities. What Cassou said about Vallotton’s novels holds true for his
interiors and many of his other pictures. “His novels do indeed give us
the key. We discern mixed feelings in them: on the one hand, a bitter and
grumbling spite towards bourgeois society, that is paltry, ridiculous and
reactionary; on the other hand, a no less reactionary pleasure at
belonging to it.” 60 Sarcasm is generally found where the human element
is dominant. When Vallotton turns to landscape painting, he appears in a
different light. Here he is at his most Nabi, his highly decorative effects
♦ Felix Vallotton, The Visit, Interior blue sofa, 1899. Tempera on cardboard, 55 x 87 cm, Kunsthaus, Zurich.
N A B I S
♦ Felix Vallotton, The Taking of Europe, 1908. Oil on canvas,
130 x 162 cm, Kunstmuseum, Bern.
THE N A B I S
and stylistic allusions typical of all the members of the group. Vallotton’s attitude,
however, still remains estranged. There is something of toy-land in his Landscape
in Normandy, one of his best landscapes. Vallotton seems to hint, by employing
this “playful” approach, that he is acquainted with Japanese art, but chooses to
stick with the Europeans in his modelling, adding just a touch of Japanese
flavour. He is alive to Cezanne’s work and even makes use of his “plunging
perspective” method, with the foreground rather than the background
dramatically foreshortened, but the spirit of the Cezanne landscape is alien to
him: his neat little cows could not graze in it. What they need is a cultivated
countryside. Vallotton was a rare type of professional, non-Salon artist: he did not
shrink from banal, almost pastoral motifs, although he managed to do without the
traditional shepherds and shepherdesses. He never shunned deliberately poetic
motifs like a pink sunset, nor old-fashioned compositions with the emphasis on
the middle. In this latter respect Landscape in Normandy is comparable with the
works of the Barbizon school. A great museum-goer and frequenter of art exhi-
bitions since his young days, Vallotton was able to use to his own end an
intonation he caught, or a gesture he observed. This was not imitation — if it
were so, there would not be the hints of parody — but a means of self-expression.
In playing with a certain device, Vallotton was not afraid of looking old-
fashioned and so becoming an object of ridicule. The keen sense of the present
time, which he possessed to an exceptional extent, allowed him to transform a
weary device. His Portrait of a Woman (Woman Wearing a Hat) is undoubtedly a
parody, combining the almost uncombinable: the striking turn of the half-clothed
figure and a plain, dull face topped with an elaborate flowery hat. The painter’s
eye seems dispassionate, yet something personal comes across in his attitude to
the woman. Annette Vaillant recollected that Vallotton’s Calvinist exterior
concealed a strange Ingres-like sensuousness. 61 But the intimate effect of the
portrait is extinguished by mockery, noticeable even in the range of colours,
which is limited here and clearly imitates that of Salon journeyman painters.
On the other hand, the portraits of Haasen and his wife demonstrate that
Vallotton was capable, when he chose, of being a painter of gala portraits. His
impartiality here is almost like that of a camera. Perhaps because these portraits
were commissioned, he does not seem to want anything more than an outward
likeness; not a single brushstroke betrays his attitude towards the model, nor,
indeed, any attitude at all. It is significant that the background details in the portrait
of Haasen are far more interesting artistically than the human figure. Vallotton’s
art is indispensable for any student of life in that period: the accuracy of his details
never needs to be questioned; the design, mood and, with rare exception, bitter
astringency of his work set him apart not only among the Nabis but among other
contemporaries too. His deliberate objectivity and emphatically dispassionate
observation expressed in meticulous draughtsmanship and inexpressive texture
link him not only with the Naturalism of the nineteenth century, but also with the
tendencies of the twentieth. It is natural, therefore, that public interest in his work
has tended to grow whenever there was a turn towards the concrete, material
aspect in the arts, be it the 1920s, with their renewed materialism, or the 1970s,
with their hyper-realism and other semi-naturalistic trends.
♦ Felix Vallotton, Sleep, 1908. Oil on canvas, 113.5 x 162.5 cm, Musee d’Art
et d’Histoire, Geneva.
1867 Pierre Bonnard is born at Fontenay-aux-Roses near Paris.
1875 Enters the secondary school at Vanves, later attends the Lycees
Louis-le-Grand and Charlemagne. Spends his summers at Grand-
Lemps in the Dauphine.
1886 Enters the Law Faculty of Paris University.
1887 Begins to study painting at the Academie Julian where he meets
Paul Serusier, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson and ibels.
1888 Leaves the University and enters the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
1 890 The exhibition of Japanese prints arranged at the Ecole des Beaux-
Arts makes a deep impression on Bonnard.
1891 Shares a workshop with Vuillard and Denis in the Rue Pigalle.
Through Denis he becomes acquainted with Lugne-Poe, Andre
Antoine and Paul Fort; works for the theatre. Enjoys his first suc-
cess with the poster France-Champagne. Exhibits at the Salon des
Independants and at the Le Bare de Boutteville Gallery.
1892 Turns to lithography. Is noted by such well-known art critics as
Albert Aurier, Gustave Geffroy and Roger-Marx.
1893 Becomes acquainted with Marthe (Maria Boursin). Produces litho-
graphs for the Petites Scenes Familieres and the Petit Solfege by
1896 First one-man show at the Durand-Ruel Gallery. Together with
Vuillard and Maillol accepts an invitation to take part in the exhi-
bition "La Libre Esthetique" in Brussels. Illustrates the novel Marie
by Peter Nansen, published in the Revue Blanche.
1899 Vollard publishes an album of Bonnard's colour lithographs enti-
tled Quelques aspects de la vie de Paris. Works on a large series of
lithographs for Paul Verlaine's book of poems Parallelement.
1900 Exhibits together with the other Nabis at the Bernheim-Jeune
Gallery. Works in Paris and its environs: Montval, I'Etang-la-Ville,
Vernouillet and Medan.
1902 Produces 156 lithographs for Longus's tale Daphnis and Chloe.
Takes part in the Bernheim-Jeune exhibition. In the summer works
1 904 Works at I'Etang-la-Ville and Varengeville. Illustrates Jules Renard's
FUstoires natu relies.
1905 Produces a series of nudes and portraits. Visits Spain.
1906 Exhibits landscapes and interiors at the Vollard Gallery. One-man
show at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. In the summer sails on Misia
Edwards' yacht to Belgium and Holland.
1908 Visits Italy, Algeria, Tunisia and Britain. Illustrates 628-E-8 by
1909 Works in Medan. In June goes to Saint-Tropez to visit Manguin.
1910 Works in the south where he regularly sees Signac and Renoir.
191 1 Paints the triptych Mediterranean and the panels Morning in Paris
and Evening in Paris commissioned by Ivan Morozov.
1912 Buys "Ma Roulotte", a small villa in Vernonnet, not far from
Giverny. Often sees Claude Monet.
1913 Visits Hamburg together with Vuillard.
1916 Works on a series of large panels for the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery.
In November goes on a trip to Winterthur.
1918 The Jeune Peinture Frangaise society elects Bonnard and Renoir as
1919 Fosca and Werth publish the first books devoted to Bonnard.
1925 Buys a small house at Le Cannet. Officially marries Marthe.
1926 Travels to the United States to act as a member of the Carnegie
1936 Receives a Carnegie Prize for the second time (first award in
1939 Settles at Le Cannet.
1942 Marthe Bonnard dies.
1947 Pierre Bonnard dies at Le Cannet.
KER XAVIER ROUSSEL
1867 Ker Xavier Roussel born at Chene, near Lorry-les-Metz.
1870 The Roussels move to Paris.
1878 At the Lycee Condorcet, where he meets Vuillard and, later
1886 Studies under Maillard.
1888 At the Academie Julian. Friendship with Serusier, Ibels, Ranson
and Bonnard. Their circle joined by Vuillard and Denis.
1891 Participates with Bonnard and Vuillard in the first exhibition at
the Le Bare de Boutteville Gallery.
1 893 Marriage to Vuillard's sister.
1 895 Like Vuillard, frequently visits Thadee Natanson at Valvins.
1 896 Vollard commissions from Roussel a series of lithographs, Album
du Paysage, on which he works between 1897 and 1899.
1899 Trip to Venice with Vuillard and Bonnard. All three exhibit at the
Bernheim-Jeune Gallery (until 1914, on a regular basis).
Eventually settles down at I'Etang-la-Ville.
1 900 Acquires his own manner of painting with a picturesque and free
treatment of allegorical and mythological subjects.
1901 First exhibits at the Salon des Independants.
1902 Trip to Holland with Vuillard and the Hessels.
1 902-1 4Spends most summers in Normandy.
1904 First exhibits at the Salon d'Automne.
1906 Teaching at the Academie Ranson. Joins Denis in visits to
Cezanne at Aix and Cross at Saint-Clair.
1909 Produces decorative panels for the Bernheims and Lugne-Poe.
1912 Roussel-Rodin exhibition at the Giroux Gallery, Brussels.
1913 Designs curtain for the Theatre de la Comedie des Champs-
1915 Convalescing in Switzerland. Friendship with the art collector
Hahnloser and his family. Commissioned by the Art Museum in
Winterthur to paint two decorative panels.
1925 Paints decorative panels for Lucien Rosengart.
1926 Wins the Carnegie Prize.
1930 Makes numerous lithographs. Vollard's studio at his disposal.
1932 Illustrates Poems by Maurice de Guerin.
1936 Begins the panel Pax Nutrix for the Palace of Nations, Geneva.
1937 Panel Dance for the Palais Chaillot, Paris.
1 939 Goes to Geneva with Vuillard to complete the panel at the Palace
1944 Roussel dies at I'Etang-la-Ville.
1870 Denis born at Granville.
1882 Enters the Lycee Condorcet, where he meets Vuillard, Roussel and
1884 Takes drawing lessons from Zani. Copies the Old Masters at the
Louvre. Tries writing poetry. Begins keeping a diary.
1885 Shows a preference for Fra Angelico.
1887 Profoundly impressed by Puvis de Chavannes' exhibition.
1888 Enters the Academie Julian. Friendship with Serusier, Bonnard,
Ibels, Ranson, Roussel and Vuillard, who unite to become an
artistic group. Admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, class of Jules
Lefebvre and Lucien Doucet.
1 889 Meets Redon. Influenced by Gauguin's exhibition at the Cafe Volpini.
1890 First exhibits at the Salon. Contributes an article to the Art et
Critique, which is to become the Nabis' manifesto.
1891 Shares a studio with Bonnard, Vuillard and Lugne-Poe. Exhibits at
the Salon des Independants. Meets Pissarro, Valery, Debussy,
Chausson. Designs stage-sets and costumes for productions of
plays by Remy de Gourmont and Dujardin.
1892 Meets Andre Gide. Publishes articles on contemporary painting.
1893 Marries Marthe Meurier. Makes a set of lithographs to illustrate Le
Voyage d'Urien by Andre Gide. Settles down at Saint-Germain-en-
1895 Writes a preface to the catalogue of the Impressionist and
Symbolist exhibition at Le Bare de Boutteville's Gallery. Autumn:
first visit to Italy; cycling with Serusier through Tuscany and
Umbria. Paints a frieze of 7 panels, Love and the Life of a Woman,
for the bedroom of his own house.
1897 Second trip to Italy. Stays with the composer Chausson in
Florence. Paints a series of panels for Denys Cochin.
1898 Works on a ceiling painting in Madame Chausson's house (Terrace
in Fiesole). Becomes a member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-
1899 Trip to Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu. Makes a series of 12 lithographs
for Vollard and decorates the Chapel of the College of the Holy
Cross at Vesinet. (The Worship of the Holy Cross)
1901 Participates in "La Libre Esthetique" exhibition in Brussels. Degas
shows him his collection of Ingres' paintings. Designs stained-glass
windows for the church at Vesinet.
1903 Member of the Committee at the Salon des Independants. Visits
Verkade in the Convent of Beuron. Verkade, Serusier and Denis
discuss art and aesthetics. Vollard publishes The Imitation of
Christ, a 216-piece series of Denis' lithographs.
1 904 Another trip to Italy. Publishes numerous articles on art. First one-
man show at the Druet Gallery (preface to the catalogue written
by Andre Gide).
1905 Trip to Spain. In Pont-Aven purchases Gauguins and Bernards.
Articles on Maillol and Gauguin.
1906 Joins Roussel for a journey to Provence to visit Cezanne, Cross,
Signac and Renoir. Makes five decorative panels for
Mutzenbecker's house in Wiesbaden. (The Eternal Summer)
1908 Purchases the "Silencio" estate at Perros-Guirec; subsequently
spends his summer months there. Teaches at the Academie
Ranson. Paints five panels of the Legend of Psyche series for Ivan
Morozov and a decorative ensemble The Eternal Spring for Gabriel
Thomas' dining-room at Bellevue.
1909 Visits Moscow with his wife. Another panel of the Legend of
1910 One-man show in London. The Florentine Evening series inspired
by Boccaccio's Decameron.
1912 Sets of panels for the Theatre des Champs-Elysees (The History of
Music) and for the Prince of Wagram (The Golden Age). Denis's
articles published in a separate volume under the title Theories.
1914 Purchases the Priory, an ancient hospital building, in Saint-
Germain-en-Laye. Visits Italy to complete illustrations for The Life
of Saint Dominic.
1919 Denis and Georges Desvallieres organize the Ateliers d'Art Sacre.
Death of Marthe Denis.
1922 One-man show in Venice. Publishes Nouvelles Theories sur Tart
moderne et fart sacre.
1927 Trip to the USA at the invitation of the Carnegie Institute.
1932 Elected member of the Institut de France.
1937 Works on panels for the Palace of Nations, Geneva.
1943 Run over by a car, Denis dies on the way to hospital.
1868 Edouard Vuillard born into the family of a retired colonial army
officer in Cuiseaux, Saone et Loire.
1878 The Vuillards return to Paris. Edouard attends the Ecole Rocroy
Saint-Leon, then the Lycee Condorcet.
Friendship with Roussel. Meets Denis and Lugne-Poe.
1884 Death of Vuillard's father. Mother runs a dressmaker's business
to support the family.
1887 At Roussel's instigation, refuses to enter the Saint-Cyr Military
College, joins his friend instead at Maillart's studio.
1888 Short period at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (Genome's class), then
attends the Academie Julian together with Roussel. Friendship
with Bonnard, then Ranson, Serusier and Denis. All dissatisfied
with Bouguereau's teaching methods at the Academie Julian.
1889 Impressed by Gauguin's paintings at the "Peintres Symbolistes
et Synthetistes" exhibition in the Cafe Volpini.
1891 Shares studio in the Rue Pigalle with Bonnard and Denis.
1892 Paints first decorative panels for Desmarais.
1 893 Designs scenery for the Theatre de I'oeuvre founded by
1894 Paints nine panels featuring parks of Paris for Alexandre
Natanson, the publisher of the Revue Blanche.
1895 Pays visit to Mallarme. At the Salon, Tiffany exhibits a series of
stained-glass panels, one of them of Vuillard's design.
1896 Makes four large-scale panels for the drawing-room of his
friend Vaquez. Invited to exhibit with Bonnard and Toulouse-
Lautrec at the "Libre Esthetique" show in Brussels.
Commissioned by Vollard to make an album of lithographs to
be published within two years.
1898 Panels for novelist Claude Anet.
1899 Summer: at Le Cannet with the Natansons. Visits Venice with
Bonnard and Roussel. Exhibits with Bonnard at the Bernheim-
Jeune Gallery until 1914.
1900 In Romanel, Switzerland, meets Madame Jos Hessel, his future
patroness, at Vallotton's.
1901 First exhibits at the Salon des Independants.
1902 Joins the Hessels for a trip to Holland. Stays with them in
Normandy throughout summer.
1905 Visits Spain with Bonnard.
1906 Teaches at the Academie Ranson.
1909 Panels for the Bernheim brothers and Lugne-Poe.
1913 Decorates foyer of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Visits
Hamburg and Berlin with Bonnard.
1914 Mobilized at the outbreak of war.
1916 Military painter at Gerardmer.
1917-24 Lives and works alternatively in Paris and at the Hessels' in
1928 Vuillard's mother dies.
1930 In Spain with the Hessels and Jean Laroche.
1936 Co-operates with Denis and Roussel on panels for the Palace of
Nations, Geneva. (Peace Protecting the Muses)
1937 Elected member of the Institut de France. Paints panels for the
Palais de Chaillot.
1938 Retrospective at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.
1940 Leaves Paris after Nazi invasion. Dies at La Baule.
FELIX V A L L O X X O N
1865 Felix Vallotton born into the family of a petty tradesman in
1875 At the College Cantonal, Lausanne. Studies drawing under
Jean-Samson Guignard. Discovers Swiss artists Anker, Calame
and Gleyre at the local museum
1882 Moves to Paris. At the Academie Julian, Jules Lefebvre's class.
1885 First exhibits at the Salon.
1886 Vallotton's portraiture wins an honourable mention at the
Salon. He earns his keep by making engraved copies of the Old
1887 Copying Renaissance artists at the Louvre.
1889 Vallotton's engravings shown in the Swiss pavilion at the Paris
World Fair. Friendship with Toulouse-Lautrec, Cottet, Vuillard.
1891 Contributes to the Gazette de Lausanne as an art critic. Tries
making woodcuts, developing his own stark style. Begins
contributing to the Revue Blanche; becomes friendly with the
painters and writers associated with that periodical.
1892 Joins the Nabis.
1893 Makes a set of lithographs, Immortels passes presents ou
futurs. His Bathers on a Summer Evening causes a scandal at
the Salon des Independants. Meets Maillol. Exhibits with the
Nabis at the Le Bare de Boutteville Gallery. Contributes to the
London-based magazine Studio. Visits Belgium and Holland.
1895 Contributes to periodicals: Pan (Berlin), Chap Book (Chicago)
and Ord och Bild (Stockholm).
1897 Becomes close to Vuillard, Bonnard, Ranson and the other
Nabis. Exhibits at the Vollard Gallery.
1898 Set of woodcuts Intimites. Meier-Graefe publishes a book on
Vallotton in Germany and in France.
1899 Marriage to Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, nee Bernheim-
Jeune. Establishes close contacts with the Bernheim-Jeune
Gallery. In summer: works in Normandy and Brittany.
1900 Becomes a French citizen. In summer: works at the Chateau
Romanel near Lausanne.
1 901 Stays in Le Cannet (with the Natansons), Marseilles and Honfleur.
1903 Exhibits at the Salon d'Automne and at the Secession in
Vienna. Works at Arc-la-Bataille.
1904 Works in Varengeville. Besides painting and woodcuts, tries his
hand at sculpture.
1907 Writes the novel La Vie meurtriere, the keenest expression of
his pessimism. Vallotton's play Un Rien produced by the
Theatre de I'CEuvre; another play, L'Homme fort, to be put on
the following year at the Theatre du Grand Guignol.
1908 Teaches at the Academie Ranson.
1909 First one-man show in Zurich, displaying 75 works (girls under
1 6 are not allowed in).
1910 One-man show at the Druet Gallery, Paris; preface to the
catalogue written by Vallotton's friend Octave Mirbeau.
1911 Sunsets series.
1913 Trips to St Petersburg and Moscow, then to Italy.
1915 C'est la guerre, a series of anti-war woodcuts.
1918 Works in Honfleur.
1 920 Feels despondent notwithstanding the success of his post-war
exhibitions. After the war he paints mostly landscapes, as well
as still lifes and self-portraits.
1922 Works in Cagnes-sur-Mer.
1924 Works in Cagnes-sur-Mer, Vence and Deauville. Paints
landscapes of Brittany, Normandy, the Dordogne and the Loire.
Illustrates Hervier and Flaubert.
1925 Dies in Paris.
1 Ch. Zervos, Pierre Bonnard, est-il un grand peintre?, Cahiers d'Art,
1947, p. 1
2 A. Terrasse, Matisse et Bonnard : quarante ans d'amitie, Revue de
I 'Art, 1984, p. 64
3 Perucchi-Petri, Das Figurenbild in Bonnards Nabis-Zeit, in Pierre
Bonnard, Zurich, 1984, p. 42
4 Th. Natanson, Le Bonnard que je propose, Geneva, 1951, pp. 16, 17
5 A. Terrasse, Bonnard, Geneva, 1964, p. 24
6 Dom W. Verkade, Le Tourment de Dieu, Paris, 1926, p. 80
7 A. Benois, My Reminiscences, vol. I, Moscow, 1980, p. 154 (in
8 Th. Natanson, op. cit., p. 100
9 A. Benois, op. cit., p. 154
,0 Th. Natanson, op. cit., p. 24
11 H. Matisse, Ecrits et propos sur Fart, Paris, 972, p. 304
"Letter to Pierre Courthion (P Courthion, Impromptus — Pierre
Bonnard, in: Les Nouvelles Litteraires, 24 June. 1933)
"See J. and H. Dauberville, Bonnards. Catalogue raisonne de I'oeuvre
peint, Paris, 1965-74, vols 1-4; F. Bouvet, Bonnard. L'CEuvre grave,
Paris, 1981; C. Roger-Marx, Bonnard lithographe, Monte-Carlo,
14 H. Matisse, op. cit., p. 83
15 A Terrasse, Pierre Bonnard Paris, 1967, p. 10
w Ibid., p.23
17 A. Terrasse, Pierre Bonnard, p. 44
18 Th. Natanson, op. cit., p. 170
"Quoted from: A. Terrasse, Bonnard, Geneva, 1964, p. 40
“Quoted from: J. Bouret, Bonnard. Seductions, Lausanne, 1967. p. 26
21 A. Terrasse, Pierre Bonnard, Paris, 1967, p. 94
22 R. Cogniat, Pierre Bonnard ou le Miroir magique in: Pierre Bonnard,
23 Th. Natanson, op. cit., p. 104
24 A. Terrasse, Pierre Bonnard, Paris, 1967, p. 1 1
25 A. Terrasse, Pierre Bonnard, Paris, 1967
26 A. Vaillant, Bonnard, London, 1966, p. 113
27 Bonnord and his Environment, New York, 1966, p. 1 1
28 Th. Natanson, op. cit., p. 87
29 M. Denis, Theories. 1890-1911, Paris, 1913, p. 162
31 Le Symbolisme en Europe. Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-von
Beuningen. Bruxelles, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de
Belgique. Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle. Paris, Grand Palais,
32 Nobis und Fouves. Zeichnungen, Aquarelle, Pastelle aus Schweizer
Privatbesitz. Kunsthaus Zurich. Kunsthaus Bremen.
KunsthalleBielefeld, Zurich, 1982
33 B. Dorival, Les Peintres du XXe siecle, Paris, 1957, p. 16
34 Ibid., p. 17
35 A. Terrasse, Bonnard, Geneva 1964, p. 54
36 Bonnard. Musee de Lyon. Exhibition Catalogue, Lyons, 1954
37 M. Denis, Journal, vol. I, Paris, 1957, p. 67
38 A. S. Golubkina, Letters. A Few Words on the Sculptor's Profession.
Reminiscences of Contemporaries, Moscow, 1983, p. 79 (In
39 M. Denis, Preface du catalogue L'Ecole de Pont-A yen et les Nabis.
1888-1908. Galerie Parville, Paris, 1943, p. 3
40 V. F Khodasevich, Necropolis. Reminiscences, Paris, 1976,
pp. 10, 1 1 (in Russian)
41 Extraits du journal inedit de Paul Signac. 1897-1898,
Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1952, April, pp. 276, 277
42 M. Denis, Journal, vol. I (1884-1904), Paris, p. 137
43 Edouard Vuillard, K. X. Roussel, Orangerie des Tuileries, Paris, 1968,
44 A. Aurier, Les Symbolistes, Revue Encyclopedique, Paris, 1892, no.1,
45 G. Geffroy, La Vie artistique, 2 e serie, Paris, 1893, p. 382
46 J. Salomon, Vuillard, Paris, 1968, p. 29
47 Vente Thadee Natanson a I'Hdtel Drouot (preface by Octave
Mirbeau), Paris, 1908
48 Les Mardis, Stephane Mallarme and the Artists of his Circle,
The University of Kansas Museum of Art, 1966, p. 44
49 M. Denis, Journal, vol. 1 (1884-1904), Paris, p. 143
50 Dorn W. Verkade, Le Tourment de Dieu, Paris, 1926, p. 78
51 M. Denis, Journal, vol. 1 (1884-1904), Paris, 1957, p. 59
52 M. Denis, Theories. 1890-1910, Paris, 1913, p.1
53 M. Denis, Serusier, sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris, 1943, p. 64
54 M. Denis, Journal, vol. 1, p. 67
55 M. Denis, Theories, p. 251
56 M, Denis, Journal, vol. 3, Paris, 1959. p. 214
57 Ch. Chasse, Les Nabis et leur temps, Lausanne-Paris, 1960
58 Extraits du journal inedit de Paul Signac. 1897-1898. Gazette des
Beaux-Arts, 1952, April, p. 280
59 Gazette de Lausanne, 4 May 1 893
60 J. Cassou, Panorama des arts plastiques contemporains, Paris, 1960,
61 A. Vaillant, Bonnard, London, 1966. p. 109
S. Barazzetti-Demoulin, Maurice Denis, Paris, 1945
B ARSKAYA, BESSONOVA 1985
A. Barskaya, M. Bessonova, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in Soviet Museums, Leningrad, 1985 (in Russian)
N. Brodskaya, Felix Vallotton et la Russie, Lausanne, Galerie Paul 1986
Catalogue ofS. I. Shchukin’s Collection, Moscow, 1913 (in Russian)
Catalogue of the Municipal Gallery of the Brothers Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov, Moscow, 1917 (in Russian)
Museum of New Western Art. Illustrated Catalogue, Moscow, 1928 (in Russian)
The Hermitage. Department of Western European Art: Catalogue of Painting, Leningrad-Moscow, 1958, vol. I (in Russian)
The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts: Catalogue of the Picture Gallery. Painting, Sculpture, Moscow, 1961 (in Russian)
The Hermitage. Western European Painting. Catalogue. I: Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, Leningrad, 1976 (in Russian)
The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts: Catalogue of the Picture Gallery. Painting, Sculpture, Miniature Painting, Moscow, 1986 (in Russian)
G. Coquiot, Bonnard, Paris, 1922
DAUBERVILLE (or D) 1965; 1968)
Jean et Elenri Dauberville, Bonnard. L'CEuvre peint, Paris, 1965-74, 4 vols
DENIS 1957; 1959
M. Denis, Journal, vol. 1 (1884-1904), vol. 2 (1905-1920), Paris, 1957, vol. 3 (1921-1943), Paris, 1959
DESC ARGUES 1961
P Descargues, Le Musee de l Ermitage, Paris, 1961
FRENCH 20TH-CENTURY MASTERS 1970
The Hermitage, Leningrad. French 20th-century Masters
(introduction by A. N. Izerghina, notes by A. G. Barskaya, B. A. Zernov), Prague, 1970
GEORGIEVSKAYA, KUZNETSOVA 1979
French Painting from the Pushkin Museum, Leningrad, 1979
H. Hahnloser-Biihler, Felix Vallotton et ses amis, Paris, 1936
IZERGHINA, BARSKAYA 1975
French Painting from the Hermitage.Leningrad. Mid- 19th to Early 20th Century
(introduction by A. Izerghina, selection and notes on the plates by A. Barskaya), Leningrad, 1975
N. Kalitina, French Landscape Painting. 1870-1970, Leningrad, 1972 (in Russian)
A. Kostenevich, French Art of the 19th to Early 20th Century in the Hermitage (guidebook), Leningrad, 1984 (in Russian)
A. Kostenevich, Western European Painting in the Hermitage: 19th-20th Centuries, Leningrad, 1987
A. Kostenevich, From Monet to Picasso. French Painting from the Late 19th to Early 20th Centuries in the Hermitage, Leningrad, 1989 (in Russian)
S. Makovsky, French Painters from I .A. Morozov’s Collection, Apollon, St Petersburg, 1912, nos 3, 4 (in Russian)
A. Mithouard, Maurice Denis, Art et Decoration, 1907, July-December
P. Muratov, The Shchukin Gallery: An Essay on the History of New Painting, Russkaya mysl', Moscow, 1908, no. 8 (in Russian)
L. Reau, Catalogue de l ’art frangais dans les musees russes, Paris, 1929
A. Segard, Peintres d’aujourd’hui. Les Decorateurs, Paris, 1914
C. Sterling, Musee de I’Ermitage. La Peinture frangaise de Poussin a nos jours, Paris, 1957
B. Ternovets, Letters. Diaries. Essays, Moscow, 1977 (in Russian)
C. Terrasse, Bonnard, Paris, 1927
A. Terrasse, Pierre Bonnard, Paris, 1967
Ya. Tugendhold, The French Collection ofS. I. Shchukin, Apollon, St Petersburg, 1914, nos 1, 2 (in Russian)
Ya. Tugendhold, The First Museum of New Western Painting, Moscow, 1923 (in Russian)
F. Vallotton, Documents pour une biographie et pour I’histoire d’une oeuvre. Introduction,
selection and notes by Gilbert Gaison and Doris Jacubec, Lausanne-Paris, 1974, vol.2 (1900-1914)
BESSONOVA, WILLIAMS 1986
Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The Hermitage, Leningrad. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Moscow.
National Gallery of Art, Washington. Introductions by Marina Bessonova and William James Williams.
Selection by Marina Bessonova, William James Williams and Albert Kostenevich, Leningrad-New York, 1986
N.Y. Yavorskaya, Pierre Bonnard, Moscow, 1972 (in Russian)
Article by Christian Zervos, Cahiers d'Art p. 7
Bonnard around 1890 p. 6
Edouard Vuillard p.201
Felix Vallotton p.202
Ker Xavier Roussel p. 1 99
Denis, Self-Portrait p.200
A Barracks Scene p.33
A Corner of Paris p.67
Almond Tree in Bloom p.57
Andree Bonnard with her Dogs p.9
At the Park p.62
Autumn Morning or The Grand View of Vernon p. 1 07
Balcony at Vernonnet p. 1 38
The Bathroom Mirror p.72
Behind the fence p.60
Bonnard with Marthe (centre) and Suzanne Bernheim
de Villers p.29
Breakfast by the Radiator p. 1 34
Breakfast Room in the Country p. 1 23
The Breakfast Room p. 5 1
The Bridge p. 1 5
Cannet Landscape p.103
The Chequered Blouse p.30
The Cherry Tart p.146
Child Eating Cherries p.37
The Children's Lunch p. 1 7
The Circus Horse p.53
The Cote d'Azur p. 1 41
Cottages at Cannet p.83
The Croquet Game p.8
The Descent to Cannet p.54
The Dressing Gown p.25
The Dressing Table with a bunch of Red and
Yellow Flowers p.73
The Family in the Garden p. 1 02
Early Spring p.78
Early Spring in the Countryside p.101
Family Scene p.31
Fiacre p.1 18
The Garden p.1 54
The Gardener p.1 26
The Grands Boulevards p.69
The Grand-Lemps, autumn p.1 06
In the Bathroom p.74
Josse Bernheim-Jeune and Gaston Bernheim de Villiers p.1 30
La Promenade p.45
La Revue Blanche p.1 1
Landscape at Le Cannet, View Over the Roof-tops p.55
The Life of the painter p. 1 4
The Little Laundry Girl p.1 6
Man and Woman p.24
Misia with Roses p.1 16
Normandy Landscape p.1 25
Nude Against the Light p.40
Nude with Black Stockings p.22
Nursemaids' Promenade, Frieze of Carriages p.26-27
On the way to school p.68
The Parade Ground p.32
The People's Square in Rome p.43
Place Clichy or The Green Tram p.90
Place Clichy or The Two Elegant Ladies p.9 1
Place Clichy p.94
The Pont du Carrousel p.1 19
The Port of Cannes p.1 49
Port Trouville p.1 55
Portrait of Berthe Schaedlin p. 1 2
The Provincial Pot p.50
The Red Garters p.1 9
Reflection in the Mirror p.75
Sailing (The Hahnloser Family) p.1 29
Self-Portrait p.1 3
The Siesta p.21
Sombre Nude p.52
Sunny Landscape, village in the background p.79
Tea in the Garden p.1 35
The Terrace at Grasse p.111
The Terrace at Vernon p.48-49
The Terrasse Family (L'apres-midi bourgeoise) p.1 8
The Tugboat on the Seine p.28
Tugboat at Vernon p.82
View of Saint-Tropez or The Alley p.99
The Window, 1925 p.1 48
Woman in the Garden (panel 1, 2, 3, 4) p.46-47
Woman with Dog p.63
Woman with Parrot
The Yellow Boat
Composition with a Skull
Young Woman Seated on a Chaise longue
A Paris Street in the Rain
In the Snow (Training the Dog)
The Triumph of Bacchus (Rural Festival)
The Triumph of Ceres (Rural Festival)
The Poor Fisherman
Mister Perrot's Dance Lesson
Bacchus and Ariadne
Decoration for the chapel of the College Sainte-Croix
Portrait of Doctor Paul Gachet
du Vesinet. Right hand panel with angels and altarboys p. 1 83
Figures in a Springtime Landscape
The Flying Cupid is Struck by Psyche's Beauty
Homage to Cezanne
Martha and Mary
p. 1 20-121
Lady at the Piano
Mother and Child
Landscape at Rocamadour
Landscape at sunset
Outskirts of Lausanne
Portrait of Marthe the Artist's Wife
p . 1 76
Portrait of Georges Haasen
Sacred Spring in Guidel
Portrait of Madame Haasen
Sheperds (The Green Seashore)
p. 1 80-181
The Wedding Procession
p. 1 72-173
The Taking of Europe
The Visit, Interior blue sofa
View of Cagne from horseback
Cafe at Arles
Woman with Black Hat
Nave nave moe, sacred springs or Sweet Dreams
Chapel in Versailles
At the Circus
At the Window (Interior. Woman at the Window)
In the Garden
In the Room
On the Sofa (In the White Room)
Three Panels from "Jardins Publics": Public Gardens;
The Red Room
the Nursemaid; The Red Parasol
p. 1 96-1 97
p. 1 94-1 95
p. 1 92-1 93
p. 1 62-1 63
P ierre Bonnard was the leader of a group of post-impressionist painters who
called themselves the Nabis, from the Hebrew word meaning ‘prophet’.
Bonnard, Vuillard, Roussel and Denis, the most distinguished of the Nabis,
revolutionized the spirit of decorative techniques during one of the richest periods
in the history of French painting. Influenced by Odilon Redon and Puvis de
Chavannes, as well as by popular imagery and Japanese etchings, this post-
impressionist group was, above all, a close circle of friends who shared the same
cultural background and interests. An increasing individualism in their art often
threatened the group’s unity, and although tied together by a common philosophy,
their work clearly diverged. This publication lets us compare and put into
perspective the artists within this fascinating group.
The works presented in this collection offer a palette of extraordinary poetic
expressions: candid in Bonnard, ornamental and mysterious in Vuillard, gently
dream-like in Denis, grim and almost bitter in Vallotton. The author shares with us
the lives of these artists to the very source of their creative gifts.